COLUMBIA -The Department of Social Services will be working with a consulting firm, in an effort to improve communication internally and with the public.

DSS has been subject of criticism after children who were in the agency's care died in the past year. DSS has also had to deal with a subsequent investigation by a Senate panel, and the agency's chief resigned in June.

But Acting DSS Director Amber Gillum announced through a memo on Aug. 19 that a consulting group is developing a plan to help improve the communication within DSS, its partners and with the public.

"The Communications Plan will provide a roadmap for how we can better foster trust and credibility with the community and stakeholders through reliable, accurate, transparent and timely communication," said Gillum in the memo. "The Plan will also address methods for improving our internal communication, including mechanisms for effective two-way communication that allows DSS to solicit ongoing input."

Casey Family Programs, a Seattle-based foundation that operates on an endowment, is covering the cost of hiring the Clarus Consulting Group, which will help provide assistance to DSS staff to help them get their message out, said Eric Fenner, managing director for strategic consulting of the foundation.

DSS Deputy Director Jessica Hanak-Coulter said that through Clarus the agency's partners will participate in online surveys, as well as agency staffers.

"They're going to hold focus groups with our frontline staff so that we can get honest feedback from our frontline folks and supervisors," Hanak-Coulter said. "I want them to be able to say what they want to say, and I don't know if because of the media and because of the environment that we're in now, they might feel like they can't do that."

Fenner, a former child welfare director himself, said it's important for the community to understand what the child welfare agency is trying to accomplish. He also stressed that the foundation's only agenda is to improve the child welfare system; there is no preconceived idea of what type of communication plan Clarus will ultimately produce.

"If the community understands that the child welfare agency is working to protect children, strengthen families and provide quality services, then most communities will support the child welfare agency, Fenner said. "The difficulty comes when there's a lack of understanding."

Fenner could not immediately disclose the cost of the contract with Clarus. But he reiterated it will not come at a cost to South Carolina taxpayers. He said the foundation partners with child welfare agencies across the nation, in an effort to help the community. He said the public doesn't seem to understand the authority caseworkers have, how the protection of a child does not fall solely on a child welfare agency and how judges are the ones who order removals or reunification of children.

Naomi Torfin, executive director of Children Come First, said part of the problem is that DSS uses too many acronyms and too much internal lingo. Casey Family Programs, she said, is an established national program that is very particular of where it spends its money. If the agency was just out to improve its image, Casey wouldn't have stepped in.

"I think that if we want to see a change in the direction of successful programs and successful partnerships for kids, it has to happen," Torfin said. "If the department can communicate effectively, then it can maybe start to align itself with outside partners that it's had a lot of trouble connecting with."

Torfin added the public and third-party child welfare agencies may not participate in helping DSS when it comes to protecting children, if they don't understand what's going on internally at DSS. This effort, ideally, will help clear up the language many don't understand, she said.

"It's changing the language of how you take care of kids," Torfin said. "It's to help soften it, to reform it, to make it more human."

Reach Cynthia Roldan at 708-5891.