- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 6, 2016

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - One of South Carolina’s most scrutinized state agencies is getting another look from a House panel.

Child advocates and some lawmakers have complained about the Department of Social Services for years, saying the social welfare agency is underfunded and was letting vulnerable and abused children slip through the cracks.

But at Wednesday’s hearing of a subcommittee of the House Legislative Oversight Committee, DSS and Director Susan Alford, on the job for about a year, were praised.

Alford visited DSS offices in all of South Carolina’s 46 counties in her first year and has bluntly told lawmakers and the governor she needs $32 million extra in her budget to hire about 150 new employees, most of them caseworkers, to straighten the agency out.

“She has gone to great lengths to determine the strengths and the weaknesses of the department across the state,” said Mark Cruise, CEO of the Palmetto Association for Children and Families, which provides services to DSS.

The subcommittee will eventually write a report for the Oversight Committee. The new oversight system was put in place after a government restructuring law passed last summer.

The hearing also included more than a half-dozen people who had bad encounters with DSS, including the director of three Upstate domestic violence shelters who spoke about a woman who lost her children for nine months because she waited several hours to report her child was abused.

Safe Harbor Executive Director Becky Callaham said the woman, whom she did not name, had no choice but to wait because her boyfriend took her car keys and cellphone after abusing her and her daughter.

Several other people shared their stories as House members listened. Subcommittee chairman Nathan Ballentine told them the panel couldn’t help them with open cases.

“I don’t know what to tell you other than my prayers are with you,” the Chapin Republican told one woman.

But DSS staff members were taking names and information and promised to look at each case discussed in the public hearing, spokeswoman Karen Wingo said.

Alford couldn’t be at the meeting because of a prior engagement. But several lawmakers passed along praise for her.

“I’m very convinced your executive team is pulled together, on target and has a mission,” said Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken.

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Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP. His work can be found at https://bigstory.ap.org/content/jeffrey-collins


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