COLUMBIA - Nearly a third of state Department of Social Service workers shoulder larger than recommended caseloads and many say they are working off the clock to try to prevent children from falling prey to neglect and abuse.
A review of DSS internal documents obtained by The Post and Courier reveals 29 percent of workers had 16 cases or more, as of May 18. Those numbers differ from a reported statewide caseload average of six per worker, a number frequently repeated by agency leaders even as several lawmakers have called for the ouster of agency Director Lillian Koller.
The National Association for Social Workers recommends the average number of cases per worker should be 12 to 15. Lexington County had six workers with 40 cases or more, including one staffer with 47 cases that totaled 96 children, as of May 18.
"If you have a caseload of 47, that's a disaster," said Carla Damron, executive director for the South Carolina chapter of the social workers association.
Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, said it was "appalling" to learn a worker had so many cases.
"This is not acceptable," Shealy said. "I'm distressed over my county."
In Charleston County, 39 percent of the office's 33 workers had 20 cases or more, while 60 percent of workers had to see 21 children or more in a month.
"While there are no national standards for caseworkers, the Department of Social Services is currently developing a system and set of state based standards that will reduce caseloads and help DSS effectively respond to the needs of children and families," said Koller in written statement Tuesday.
"The fact is, caseworkers are some of the hardest working people in our state and are responsible for saving the lives of countless children every year," she said. "There is nothing more important than the welfare of our children and DSS will never stop fighting to give our front-line workers the support and guidance they need to be successful in protecting the most vulnerable among us."
Yet, DSS staffers say they work off the clock and on weekends to get their work done. They disregarded the idea of sticking to a 37.5-hour work week, fearing for the safety of the children they are charged with protecting.
"We don't want to be the next Richland County," said one, under condition of anonymity.
Earlier this month, Gov. Nikki Haley said she'd take a hands-on approach for the Richland County office, including adding extra caseworkers and creating a second shift, in light of serious child welfare issues there.
Internal DSS documents also show a Charleston County worker was dealing with as many as 32 cases, totaling 75 children, as of May 18. Another had 29 cases with 69 children.
Caseload distribution, Koller said, depends on the type of job the worker is doing. Those who handle foster care cases will have different caseload numbers than those who investigate cases.
And workers are required to see all of their children in a month. That means that the case worker with 96 children, working five days a week, has to see an average of 5 kids during a 7.5-hour day in order to meet her goal. That timeline doesn't take into account that the worker may have to be in court some days or spend extra time with a family on another that requires closer supervision.
DSS officials say they obtained the average of six by dividing the number of cases among workers statewide.
But averaging out cases among workers is not an accurate representation of what's happening at each county office, something Koller acknowledged during the May 21 hearing.
It was then when Koller said for the first time since the hearings started in January that there are workers with "too many cases."
Though 12 to 15 cases per worker is ideal, realistically, getting them under 20 is a good idea, Damron said.
"People who work at social services are trying really hard," she said. "If you get them in an impossible situation, it's a formula for burn out."
DSS officials say the reports are tools used to keep track of what's going on at every office to manage caseloads and that their intent is not to be used to discipline workers. But sources from within the department say managers use the reports to discipline workers who don't see all of the parties involved with their cases on time.
Further, during the May 21 hearing, Koller said she was "personally making a commitment" to the panel that she would stay involved with caseload distribution numbers and would personally call any county DSS director over frontline workers with more than 30 cases.
But a review of the documents reveals very few already exceed 30 statewide. Only 4 percent of workers - 17 total statewide - have 30 or more cases.
"If six was right, why did we suddenly increase?" Shealy said. "I don't know where six came from, but I don't know where 30 is coming from."
The number of children for which the agency is responsible, however, is much higher. In Richland County - what Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Columbia, has dubbed "ground zero" for the agency's ailments - a worker with 26 cases had 68 children. Another with 27 cases had 59 kids to see - in a month.
Haley announced changes for the Richland County office on May 13 following a case in April in which an infant died while a DSS staffer was searching for the baby's family.
Five-month-old Bryson Webb died in his car seat on April 22, after he stopped breathing. DSS has said the agency repeatedly tried tracking down the boy's family, who were allegedly living in different locations.
But the worker assigned to Bryson's family had 37 cases on March 2, according to a DSS document. By March 9, the worker had 49 cases.
Lourie said addressing Richland County's issues won't solve statewide concerns. He added the agency has to be restructured and officials must search for ways to keep good workers from leaving.
"They can't hire people quickly enough to fill the gaps," Lourie said. "And that defines a crisis."
Koller said during the hearing that the agency has established preliminarily that a family preservation worker - those who work with families once a claim of abuse or neglect is sustained - cannot have more than 26 families.
In Charleston County, the only family preservation workers who had less than 28 cases were newly certified workers, as of May 18. Even then, the newcomer with the lowest number - 20 - had to see 42 children in a month; 2 to 3 kids a day.
Whether or not Koller steps down, Damron said she'd like to know what will be done to fix the agency's issues. Staffing the agency and training them adequately should be a priority, she said.
"When we make decisions so that we're not adequately staffing offices that are responsible for the safety of children, those decisions have consequences," Damron said. "We have to decide that children are important enough and keeping them alive is important enough that we're going to put funding and resources, and yes, X amount of dollars towards that."