COLUMBIA - The Deputy Director of the Department of Social Services told a Senate panel on Wednesday the agency needs an additional 202 staffers to meet ideal caseload numbers for workers.
Jessica Hanak-Coulter, DSS deputy director of human services, testified before the Senate's DSS Oversight Subcommittee, as did a parent of six adopted children and the president-elect of the South Carolina chapter of the National Association of Social Workers.
Hanak-Coulter said the agency is working to recruit more workers to help with caseloads. Since June 1, DSS has hired 59 workers across the state, including 21 for Charleston County.
She added the agency continues to work on caseload numbers per worker, an issue that senators have been trying to pinpoint during recent hearings. Hanak-Coulter told panel Chairman Sen. Tom Young, R-Aiken, that workers should deal no more than 24 children, ideally.
"We would need the 202 staff in order to meet that ideal caseload methodology," Hanak-Coulter said after the hearing. "We intend to ask for additional resources over this next budget cycle and we have the support of the administration to do that."
The new staffers would cost an estimated $10 million, Hanak-Coulter said. She added about two-thirds of the cost could be paid for by the federal government. The cash would go to hire at least 109 frontline workers, while another 79 would be supervisors and the remainder would be staff for a second shift.
After obtaining internal agency documents with May 18 caseload numbers, The Post and Courier first reported in May that nearly a third of state Department of Social Services workers shoulder larger than recommended caseloads.
The social workers association 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, during the week of May 18.
A combination of news articles in the following days led to several senators calling for a vote of no confidence on then-Director Lillian Koller's leadership. She resigned on June 2. Amber Gillum, deputy director for economic services, has been serving as the interim director since.
During the first part of the hearing on Wednesday, senators also heard from Jeanne Cook, the president-elect of the South Carolina chapter of the national social workers group. Cook stressed the difference between hiring workers who have been certified by DSS and those who graduated from accredited schools in social work.
Cook also noted that the pay for workers is so low, she's received comments that they are "poverty wages." According to the DSS website, the starting salary for caseworkers ranges between $29,983 and $36,520.
"One of the things that needs to be considered, is the kind of salaries that attract the kind of people that you want to attract to do these kinds of jobs," Cook said. "I know we have economic issues, but you do get what you pay for."
Senators also heard from Stephanie Trevitz, who adopted six children with special needs from DSS, but did not receive post-adoption services from the agency and has had a difficult time with supporting state agencies as well, such as the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Office of Continuum of Care.
Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, said Wednesday's hearing was a learning session and that the hearings will continue in the coming months. The subcommittee is expected to make a recommendation to the General Assembly on what it should do to better support DSS.
Shealy said that in addition to all the concerns the panel has heard, a big issue is making sure that there are enough boots on the ground.
"There are not enough caseworkers and they are inundated with work," Shealy said. "That's when the accidents happen."
Reach Cynthia Roldan at 708-5891.