Child Abuse Reports Increase as South Carolina Struggles to Lower Caseloads

by | August 26, 2015

By Jamie Self

Calls reporting possible child abuse and neglect have increased 25 percent since January at the state's child-welfare agency, leading to a 41 percent increase in opened cases, that agency's new director says.

New, regional call centers -- covering about half the state -- are making it easier to report cases of abuse and neglect, and more of those reports are leading to cases being opened than previously, when county offices screened calls, S.C. Department of Social Services Director Susan Alford told a state Senate panel Monday.

The added cases come as the child-welfare agency struggles to lower its workers' high caseloads while improving its services.

Alford said she wants to expand the call centers across the state. But she has halted that expansion because it likely would result in another spike in cases and a need for even more caseworkers, she said. Right now, the regional centers cover 20 of the state's 46 counties.

"(Y)ou want that to happen," she said of the spike in cases -- evidence the agency is being alerted to more cases of potential abuse and neglect.

Lawmakers and the agency's leadership have blamed child-welfare workers' heavy caseloads for children falling through the cracks. The agency's former director resigned last year amid public outcry over children dying while in Social Services' care.

Alford, who took over at the agency in February, has made lowering caseloads, and improving employee retention and morale top priorities. But the process has been slow going, she said Monday during a Senate DSS Oversight Committee hearing.

New caseworkers, approved in this year's state budget which started July 1, should be hired, trained and helping to relieve caseloads in six months, she said.

Saying "we're still looking at something very dangerous," state Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, asked Alford to look at possibly bringing in retired caseworkers or others "on a temporary basis" to relieve caseloads now.

Alford said the agency is stepping up recruitment efforts and is working to move temporary employees into full-time positions to help with the load.

She also said the agency has many other needs, brought on by years of budget cuts and a lack of modernization.

"Our needs in the technology arena are vast," she said, adding money for computers and other technology will be part of the agency's budget request for the next several years.

Addressing turnover is another challenge.

The agency has hired nearly 500 child-welfare caseworkers and supervisors from June 1, 2014, to Aug. 12, but 289 employees left during that same period.

Last year, half of the state's child-welfare staff left within a year of joining the agency, Alford said.

State-approved raises and new avenues for career advancement are helping with recruitment, but high caseloads are the top driver of caseworkers leaving, she said.

(c)2015 The State (Columbia, S.C.)