COLUMBIA - The resignation of the state Department of Social Services director hasn't improved the toxic environment at the agency charged with caring for some of South Carolina's most vulnerable children, agency staffers say.

No matter how much workers say they justify the need for additional help to visit children and families in a timely manner, backup is not arriving fast enough. Staffers say they've been told they're stuck in a "victim mentality" and that it's their fault because they "don't know how to manage caseloads."

Director Lillian Koller resigned June 2, as senators were preparing to call for a no-confidence vote on her leadership. Lawmakers on a Senate panel tasked with reporting to the General Assembly on how to improve DSS said at the time Koller's departure would enable them to better address the agency's needs, though her resignation was never their initial goal.

The agency has been criticized for its practices and the number of children who have died while under its care. DSS has reported 76 children died under its custody in 2013, down from 101 in 2010.

In June, a Charleston couple sued DSS for the death of their infant who died while in the custody of a foster parent. In a separate case, the Richland County Sheriff and coroner accused the agency of not following up on complaints that 5-month-old Bryson Webb was not receiving proper medical care, leading to the infant's death.

Yet for months, the agency denied the problem was in the workload; Koller said the agency average was six cases per worker. But internal agency documents with May 18 caseload numbers obtained by The Post and Courier showed nearly a third of DSS workers shoulder larger than recommended caseloads, which advocates say can lead to unsafe situations for children.

The worker responsible for Bryson's case, for example, had 49 cases by the end of the week when the call for Bryson came in, according to a DSS document.

"We've told them this is a time bomb," a worker said. "It's hard when the hard part of this job is dealing with these people (management) and not child fatalities or broken bones."

Culture of fear

The Post and Courier has been in talks for months with several agency employees, whose combined experience tops 50 years. Under the condition that their identity be protected, they have periodically discussed their worries and concerns about what's happening at the agency.

Workers admit that things have never been perfect at DSS. Directors change with every gubernatorial administration and new policies come in with every new chief.

With Koller, the most highly cited change was the "Wildly Important Goals," referred to as WIGs. They encouraged workers to meet federal benchmarks such as closing cases within a certain amount of time, seeing every member of a family when responding to cases within 24 hours and laying eyes on a child at least once a month.

Veteran staffers say meeting the benchmarks is a good practice, but the agency doesn't provide the resources and staff to do so effectively. Workers say they hope recent attention placed on the agency leads to reform, because voicing their concerns to management can lead to trouble.

"You better not try to challenge them or question them anymore," a worker said. "If you do, you're a troublemaker."

In the Charleston County office, speaking up wasn't always a problem, a worker said. But the director of that office, Frank Oakley, was fired in September, after 26 years with the agency. He has a pending lawsuit against DSS for wrongful termination, defamation, violation of the South Carolina Whistleblower Law, and civil conspiracy.

Oakley, staffers say, was a fair manager, who wasn't too chatty, but understood the demands of the job. He went to bat for his staff during the last three years, requesting additional manpower and resources. Since his firing, staffers say they feel like they have no one else to turn to.

"There's no place to go," a worker said. "You go all the way to the top and when the top doesn't help you that is what is demoralizing."

In Charleston County a worker tried another approach. She messaged Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, about the agency and more specifically, Charleston's ills. Eager to address that and other staffers' worries, Kimpson and the office's director, Lois Richter, talked.

Since their meeting, paranoia has grown among staff, as they try to determine who is leaking information to lawmakers. Workers say management is trying to determine who has connections to Kimpson through social media or other avenues.

"I would be very, very disturbed to find that any state agency regional director or management employee would retaliate against employees for seeking to solve critical issues and improve the efficiency and effectiveness of an organization," Kimpson said.

He stressed the concerns he shared with Richter had been relayed to him from a variety of sources, including former and current staff, and third parties. The notion that his information is coming from one source is inaccurate, Kimpson said. Yet, workers say they are told they are too negative when they voice feeling overwhelmed with work.

"We are causing our own demoralizations," said a worker, paraphrasing management. "I don't think we're valued."

DSS Deputy Director Jessica Hanak-Coulter said the agency is working to improve communication with its workers.

"We want to make sure that staff are supported in the work that they do," Hanak-Coulter said. "We have been increasing the supervision and the capacity of the supervisors to support the work that they're doing."

Possible restructuring?

On July 23, Hanak-Coulter told lawmakers that the agency needed 202 additional workers to reach ideal caseload numbers. Hanak-Coulter said the agency will aim to have staffers with no more than 24 children. Such a large hire is unlikely before fiscal year 2015-16; lawmakers already approved next year's budget, which starts Oct. 1, in June.

The National Association of Social Workers recommends the average number of cases per worker should be 12 to 15. 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, according to the May 18 report.

Several DSS offices, including Richland and Charleston counties, are receiving new hires. But staffers say help isn't arriving fast enough. Hanak-Coulter told The Post and Courier 21 of 59 workers hired recently across the state are for the Charleston County DSS office.

Hanak-Coulter said Friday the agency is also working on streamlining its case manager system so that workers can spend more time doing the critical work of seeing children and families. But it takes time to update technology, she said.

"What they do is critical and we need them to know that we appreciate the work that they do," she added. "It is difficult work. It is hard work. But it is worth it and they're worth it."

Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, said the agency needs serious restructuring, which may include separating the child welfare wing of DSS from the economic services side, which handles the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Shealy has been a vocal advocate of having more workers and less management at DSS. She also was among the senators who called on Koller to resign or be fired.

"I think managers need to be able to do the job of the caseworker," Shealy said. "You don't need to be in upper management if you don't know how to do the job."

Shealy also acknowledged help isn't coming fast enough for the agency's staff. But Koller spent three years at DSS; a resolution can't come overnight, Shealy said.

Until then, workers say they're stuck with managers brought in during Koller's tenure who don't understand what it means to be a caseworker, which includes working nights, weekends and many extra - unpaid - hours.

Overburdened during regular hours, many staffers work at home on the weekends and spend long hours during the week at the office.

But not working on weekends is out of the question for most staffers; that's when some catch up with paperwork, while others track down families they just didn't have time for during the week. And when workers emphasize that they're stretched thin, they say management's response to them is that they need to stop playing the victim.