- Associated Press - Friday, July 28, 2017

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Social workers’ excessive caseloads contribute to South Carolina’s failure to adequately protect elderly and disabled victims of abuse, according to an audit released Friday.

The Legislative Audit Council reports that many potential victims aren’t visited for months, both during an investigation and in the post-investigation treatment phase, and there’s often no attempt to interview the person who has been accused of abuse.

As of last fall, there were 74 full-time social workers available to work with vulnerable adults in a state with an estimated 1.4 million elderly and disabled adults. In January, 13 of the state’s 46 counties lacked a single dedicated vulnerable-adult caseworker.

Caseloads are highest in Lexington County, where two workers were handling 222 cases. Inexperience can hamper efforts, as caseworkers on the job for less than a year had the highest average caseload, according to the report.

Low salaries and no promotional path for workers who don’t want to be a supervisor make it difficult to attract and retain social workers in the division, auditors said.

Over a three-year period, investigators substantiated 42 percent of more than 13,000 allegations of adult mistreatment, which can include self-neglect, caregiver neglect, exploitation and abuse. More allegations rejected by call center operators should have been investigated, the report said.

The audit recommends the agency make 51 changes through policy. It recommends the Legislature approve 16 more through state law, including requiring caseloads to be equal county-to-county and mandating a time frame for investigations to begin and end.

DSS Director Susan Alford said the review confirms many of the agency’s challenges in protecting vulnerable adults, and improvements are underway.

Alford said she’s told legislators repeatedly since she took the agency’s helm in 2015 that the division had been “marginalized” and not received adequate attention in years.

Improvement has been focused on the agency’s child-welfare division, which had similar issues. Last year, the agency settled a lawsuit that accused the agency of endangering the nearly 3,400 children in its care.

That settlement followed two years of scrutiny by state legislators. The agency’s previous director, Lillian Koller, resigned in 2014 on the eve of a no-confidence vote in the Senate, after hearings that focused on children’s deaths and high caseloads that exceeded 100 children for some social workers.

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