- Associated Press - Thursday, February 2, 2017

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - The resumption of a rollout of regional call centers later this year is expected to open the “flood gates” to reports of suspected child abuse and lead to a spike in social workers’ caseloads, the head of the Department of Social Services warned legislators Thursday.

Regional hubs will open for 19 smaller counties in July, and the rollout should be completed by November, with Charleston and Greenville counties being added last, Director Susan Alford told a Senate panel.

“That’s a good thing” because more calls will get through and more children could escape abuse, said Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington. She was frustrated two years ago when Alford put the rollout on hold.

“People aren’t going to stay on the phone for 40 minutes,” Shealy said, adding that a phone call may represent someone’s only chance to sneak away and report abuse.

Twenty counties have already regionalized in 2015, and that led to a skyrocketing number of calls as callers could actually get someone on the phone. Uniform training for center staff on how to screen calls also meant more of the calls led to investigations.

While recognizing “that’s what you want,” Alford told senators at the time the agency needed to focus on boosting its ranks before proceeding with the hubs statewide.

Senators commended Alford on Thursday for a sharp reduction in caseloads.

“We’ve come a long way in last three years,” said Sen. Thomas McElveen, D-Sumter.

The agency’s previous director resigned in June 2014 on the eve of a no-confidence vote in the Senate, following hearings that focused on children’s deaths and caseloads that topped 100 children.

As of Monday, no caseworker was responsible for more than 100 children, though 43 statewide were overseeing at least 50 children, according to DSS data. That’s still more than double the caseload goals set in 2014 amid the increased scrutiny.

While the agency has yet to fully meet its own standards, Alford said, improvements are giving workers more time to visit the children in their care and reducing the time children spend in foster care.

Last year, legislators provided DSS an additional $5.6 million to hire 170 more employees, including 35 additional caseworkers and 52 regional call center operators. Alford said Thursday the agency is still filling those positions.

“Our goal is to get those caseloads as low as possible before the flood gates open,” she said.

Alford said there will be a spike, but the caseloads should go back down.

The agency is seeking an additional $20 million in 2017-18 for its child welfare division, which includes hiring 59 case workers to work second- and third shifts - reducing night, weekend and on-call hours in large counties - and 23 employees to staff the regional call centers 24-7.

Alford said the budget request allows the agency to comply with its agreement last year to settle a federal lawsuit accusing DSS of endangering the nearly 3,400 abused and neglected children in its care. The settlement included a commitment to lower social workers’ caseloads, do a better job investigating abuse allegations, and increase face-to-face visits between caseworkers and children.


This story has been corrected in 4th paragraph to show state Sen. Katrina Shealy said, “People aren’t going to stay on the phone for 40 minutes.”

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