COLUMBIA - A Senate panel's hearing on the Department of Social Services had a different tone Wednesday, taking place just two days after the agency's chief resigned.
No agency staffers testified before the Senate's DSS Oversight Committee, and subject-matter experts expected to testify informed panel members on Tuesday they could not make the hearing. The now-former DSS Director, Lillian Koller, resigned on Monday, saying her role as the agency's chief was "causing a distraction."
Panel members reiterated their comments from Monday, saying having Koller resign was not their initial intent. The panel has had hearings since January. Its three members are tasked with reporting to the General Assembly on how to improve the DSS. As the investigation unfolded, several lawmakers called for Koller to resign or for Gov. Nikki Haley to fire her.
"The subcommittee will continue meeting through the remainder of the year and continue to take testimony and work on proposed solutions as we all work to try to help the department to better protect children and families in this state," said Sen. Tom Young, R-Aiken, chairman of the committee on Wednesday.
Young said it's the panel's goal to have recommendations for the General Assembly by the end of the year. He added the panel is considering having up to two hearings outside of Columbia to allow for people who can't make it to Statehouse to testify.
Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, said that it was not the panel's goal for Koller to resign when they started their investigation in January, but that her resignation gives the panel an opportunity to start something new and for a fresh start.
"We got new numbers just last week of case workers that are overloaded and our goal is to find out the solution to the problem to make it better not only for the children of South Carolina, but for the employees of the Department of Social Services," Shealy said. "They (DSS staff) cannot continue to be overworked to the point that they can't get their work done."
The Post and Courier published a story on May 28 that revealed nearly a third of DSS workers were shouldering larger than recommended caseloads for the month of May, according to internal preliminary reports. The numbers differed from a reported statewide caseload average of six per worker, a number frequently repeated by agency leaders.
Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Columbia, who along with Shealy called for Koller's resignation or firing, added the panel's efforts were never about Lillian Koller, but about protecting the vulnerable children of South Carolina.
He called on the agency's current staff to "hang in there." Lourie said the panel was aware DSS staffers are "stressed to the max." The panel's next hearing has not been scheduled yet.
"I would ask that you hang in there and give us time to work with the General Assembly, with the Governor's Office, to reform that agency and give you the resources needed to the job," Lourie said. "Let's work together to stop the bleeding and let's see if we can turn the agency around."
Cynthia Roldan can be reached at 708-5891.