It is no surprise that South Carolina legislators are angry about problems at the Department of Social Services. Children under its care have died or been placed in homes where there is abuse. Management has been unable or unwilling to provide basic data about staffing. And then director Lillian Koller resigned on June 2 after senators called for a vote of no confidence in her.
But the true test of their concern will come when DSS comes to them for more money. It will take an additional $10 million for DSS to staff child cases adequately. The state would have to come up with a third of the total, and the federal government would cover the rest.
Knowing that the department is short 202 social workers is staggering. But at least the Senate DSS Oversight Subcommittee is getting some answers to their questions so it will know how to proceed. Had DSS needs been more clearly articulated long ago, who knows if some tragedies might have been averted.
And at least DSS has begun to fill vacant positions. Since June 1, it has hired 59 workers, 21 of them in Charleston County.
Jessica Hanak-Coulter, DSS deputy director of human services, told the subcommittee that the average number of cases per worker should be 12 to 15. Earlier this year, Lexington County had six different workers whose case loads were 40 or more.
But Jeanne Cook, president-elect of the South Carolina chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, cautioned the subcommittee that social workers aren't all the same. There are those who have been certified by DSS and those who have graduated from accredited schools in social work but are not certified by DSS.
She also told the panel that recruiting good caseworkers is more challenging because of the "poverty wages" they receive. The starting salary ranges between $29,983 and $36,520.
DSS has not routinely been on the list of legislators' top 10 agencies. It tends to serve people who are struggling in difficult circumstances - not, necessarily, a sound voter or donor base.
And the fact is that few departments - including Corrections and Transportation - are adequately funded. South Carolina isn't flush with extra money.
But DSS is responsible for some of the state's most vulnerable children who need protection, guidance and care. Failing to provide those services adequately is unacceptable.
And in order to provide adequate service, Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, is right. There must be enough workers.
"There are not enough caseworkers and they are inundated with work. That's when the accidents happen," she said at the subcommittee hearing.
And it's up to her and the rest of the Legislature to make it right.
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