Nearly four years after she was appointed by former Gov. Nikki Haley to lead South Carolina's embattled social services agency, Susan Alford announced Monday that she will retire from the department later this month.
"While the decision to retire was difficult, it is rewarding to know I have finished my leg of the race," Alford said in a press release.
"We have built an excellent executive and leadership team at SCDSS (S.C. Department of Social Services) and I know they will continue to move the agency forward,” she added.
Alford's tenure as DSS director was notably plagued by fewer crises than that of her predecessor, Lillian Koller, who resigned in late 2014 after several children in the system died.
Alford, who previously led the Youth Learning Institute’s Girl’s Center at Clemson University, told The Post and Courier on Tuesday that child welfare agency directors typically hold their jobs for 18 months.
"I've been here twice as long as most," she said. "This is my 40th year of state service. I’ve been thinking about this for a while."
Alford faced her own share of controversy during her time at DSS. Before the state Legislature officially confirmed her appointment, DSS — and Alford herself — were named as defendants in a high-profile class action lawsuit.
The complaint alleged children in the foster care system were neglected, improperly medicated and abused.
The case was later settled and the press release about Alford's retirement boasted that "the agency has been engaged in child welfare reform efforts targeted at increasing foster home recruitment, caseload reduction, and improvements in health care services for children."
But court-appointment monitors determined earlier this year that the agency has struggled to comply with the terms of that class action settlement.
In their report, the monitors concluded "too little has changed."
Data published by DSS shows the number of child protective services investigations has nearly doubled under Alford's tenure but that department investigators are determining fewer cases are "founded."
For example, during the 2013-2014 fiscal year, DSS investigators determined 48 percent of 14,600 investigations were "founded."
Three years later, only 36 percent of 26,300 investigations were "founded."
Meanwhile, the number of children in the foster care system has increased by nearly 14 percent since Alford was appointed and adoptions have remained stagnant.
Alford has helped usher in positive changes, too. During her time, the agency has been able to successfully place more children in state custody with relatives and has also been able to reduce the number of young children who live in group homes.
She said she is particularly proud of the "hub" system she created to intake child welfare calls and for placing an increased emphasis on the importance of adult protective services.
"We’ve come a long way," she said. "We’ve got a long way to go."
Alford's retirement is effective July 16. Joan Meacham, currently serving as DSS chief of staff, will become acting director until a permanent replacement is named by Gov. Henry McMaster, who praised Alford's service.
"Ms. Alford has led the Department of Social Services with a true servant’s heart," McMaster said in a press release, "and with a passion that made its way throughout the entire agency as she and her team worked tirelessly to help the vulnerable children and adults in South Carolina."