- Associated Press - Friday, February 20, 2015

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - The House Ways and Means’ budget proposal pays for less than half of the additional child-welfare workers requested by the embattled Department of Social Services but provides higher pay raises in an effort to keep experienced employees.

Rep. Murrell Smith said Friday that until the agency stems the revolving door of caseworkers, it won’t be able to hire enough people to reach its goal anyway.

“We need to address the root causes of the problem. They’re just saying we need more caseworkers. We agree with that, but are you able to hire more caseworkers?” said Smith, chairman of the Ways and Means panel that writes the agency’s budget.

Smith asked agency officials repeatedly over the past month for assurances that their plan for better protecting abused and neglected children would get the job done. He feels they never did.

Their plan “seemed more conceptual than realistic,” he said.

Calls for reform grew last year as Senate hearings focused on the deaths of several children and caseloads that climbed above 100 children for some workers across the state.

Forty percent of the agency’s child-welfare staff left last year, officials told Smith’s panel earlier this month. They pointed to quarterly turnover rates, which showed that fewer people left after former director Lilian Koller resigned last June amid increasing calls for her ouster.

But Smith said the fourth quarter’s rate of 8 percent is still too high. He recommended that the agency’s new leader, Susan Alford, re-evaluate the improvement plan. The Senate confirmed her as director just last week.

In the child-welfare division, the agency had sought money for 202 additional caseworkers and supervisors, 67 assistants, four attorneys and four in human resources to speed up hiring. The agency also requested money for 35 additional vulnerable adult caseworkers and 22 more people to inspect daycare providers.

The Ways and Means proposal, which advanced Thursday to the House floor, funds 120 caseworkers as well as the 22 daycare inspectors. It funds none of the assistants - new positions agency officials said could take care of paperwork and free caseworkers’ time to visit children.

Instead, the proposal doubles employees’ pay raises.

The agency sought money to continue the 10 percent raises the agency gave to child-welfare caseworkers and supervisors last November with one-time money. That brought their average pay to $34,600 and $40,700, respectively. The committee’s plan would provide an additional 10 percent to those employees starting in July, as well as a 10 percent increase for most employees in other divisions.

“It seems to me they’d be better served having trained workers stay on the job than hiring new,” Smith said.

The agency has been trying to grow its ranks for months. Between June 1 and mid-January, the agency hired 297 caseworkers, but 159 people left in that same period, for a net gain of 138 child-welfare workers, according to the agency.

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