DSS director faces questions of caseload numbers

DSS Director Lillian Koller answers reporters' questions after panel hearing in Columbia. (Cynthia Roldan/Staff)

Caseload numbers for Department of Social Services staffers were the main subject of concern for a Senate panel on Wednesday, as it continues its investigation into the agency's practices.

Department director Lillian Koller testified for a second time since the Senate's DSS Oversight Subcommittee started having hearings in January. The next hearing will likely take place in two weeks. The subcommittee is expected to make a recommendation to the General Assembly once the meetings are over on how to improve DSS.

Sen. Tom Young, R-Aiken, said the panel spent much of the hearing focused on caseloads because it's the concern that has been raised the most. During the hearing it was revealed that caseload numbers are not the same as how many children a caseworker is dealing with per case, he said.

"They told us today that the number of cases doesn't equate to the number of children that are assigned to a case worker to keep up with and that they may actually have more children than the number of cases reflects," Young said.

It was the first time Koller acknowledged there may be a caseload issue with workers at the agency. In previous hearings, Koller and her staff have insisted workers average a caseload number of six.

"I think there is no question that we have workers who have too many cases," Koller said after the hearing. "That's not a question my mind. What is a question is: what's the right number."

Koller said other factors are involved with caseload numbers, such as the complexity of the case. During the hearing, she also said the number varies depending on the type of case staffers are working, such as foster care or adoptions.

In the meantime, Koller said the agency is searching for ways to redistribute work among staffers. In Richland County, the office with reportedly the most issues statewide, additional workers from surrounding counties have been brought in as backup.

Gov. Nikki Haley announced last week changes would be made at the Richland County DSS office, following the death of 5-month-old Bryson Webb on April 22, while a DSS staffer was searching for his family. His mother, 28-year-old Jennifer Coles, is charged with homicide by child neglect or abuse.

Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, voiced concern with Richland County's reinforcements, adding she's heard caseworkers in Charleston County have as many as 80 cases.

"I got a couple of people who were sent to Richland County that were really kind of upset that they were sent there," Shealy said. "We can't take people from other counties and move them to Richland County when their counties are struggling."

Koller insisted the move was a voluntary and temporary deployment that is expected to last no more than five months. She added the agency is working on drafting additional recommendations for the panel on what potential legislative changes the panel can suggest to the General Assembly to aid the agency.

Koller also told the panel she would become personally involved with the case distribution issue. She said she will be receiving weekly reports on caseload numbers and will call county directors if any case worker's load exceeds 30 cases.

After the hearing, Koller added the agency is being proactive, but "that does not mean that our finest work is performed in every case."

"We're not in meltdown," Koller said. "We've been in build-up strengthen mode since I got here. This was a very troubled agency."

Following the hearing, Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Columbia, updated the Senate on the hearing and renewed his call for Gov. Nikki Haley to fire Koller. He reiterated his concerns that the agency is in "meltdown" and "in crisis."

"This is a problem that has to stop at the very top," Lourie told the Senate. "I leave here today, after the 3.5-hour meeting, more concerned than ever."

Cynthia Roldan can be reached at 708-5891.