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Editorial: S.C.’s safety-net agency needs a safety net

Michael Leach DSS (copy) (copy)

As head of the state Department of Social Services, Michael Leach, center, is working to hire more front-line social workers, boost their pay and meet the goals of a court-monitored class-action settlement in addition to running a sprawling safety-net agency that serves 1 in 6 South Carolinians in some capacity. Seanna Adcox/Staff

A core state agency gets into trouble, department heads come and go and the agency limps along until a new executive is hired to clean it all up. Meet Michael Leach.

Gov. Henry McMaster brought him to Columbia from Nashville, Tennessee, last spring to help shape up the Department of Social Services, a sprawling Cabinet agency with a budget of roughly $800 million and about 4,000 employees who serve 1 in 6 South Carolinians in some capacity. It has struggled for years.

DSS oversees adoptions, foster care, social work, food stamps, elder care and child-support payments, among other things. Its officials have been criticized for being less than forthright under questioning about children who have been injured or died while in the state’s care, for failing to fill vacancies and retain front-line social workers and for failing to get a 21st-century computer system in place to help collect child-support payments and other problems, which culminated in a 2015 federal class-action lawsuit over the maltreatment of some of the nearly 4,370 children in its care.

None of this is Mr. Leach’s fault. But he inherited the baggage when the governor tapped him to run DSS, in part because of his success in getting Tennessee’s child-welfare agency out of similar trouble.

Mr. Leach is young, energetic and optimistic that he can help turn around the agency. It’s the nuts and bolts of the state’s social safety net. But, sadly, like some other government agencies — the Department of Corrections, for instance — it doesn’t get the attention it needs except when there’s a crisis. Then, lawmakers get stingy, demanding results before loosening the purse strings.

“I get where they’re coming from,” Mr. Leach told The Post and Courier.

Despite headwinds, he’s making progress in satisfying the terms of the four-year-old class-action settlement, working to get more federal and nonprofit grant funding, reducing employee turnover, improving pay, reducing caseloads, recruiting foster families and increasing their compensation from an average of $470 per month to $540 per month — a healthy boost but still below where it needs to be.

As for moving more children 6 and younger out of group homes and into family settings, he’s getting close to meeting court-ordered goals.

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But Mr. Leach isn’t naive. “This role I’ve taken on,” he says, “you might get 18 months” to turn things around. Then, he says, there will always be a need for more adoptive families, more foster parents.

He’s asking for about $127 million in increased funding for the fiscal year starting July 1 to pay for about 85 new positions, fill more than 200 vacant jobs and boost pay for new social workers to around $46,000 per year, close to the national average. About $69 million would go toward hiring and retention.

That’s a tidy sum to be sure, but lawmakers shouldn’t be shortsighted. When kids in the state’s care don’t get the help they need, they fall behind in school, they can’t find good jobs and are at a greater risk of costing the state even more in the long run.

“Our most vulnerable won’t be successful,” Mr. Leach said. He knows, having worked in counseling before working his way through the ranks in Tennessee’s child-welfare agency, which just freed itself from long-term court oversight last year thanks in no small part to his guidance.

Caseloads for social workers are dropping to more manageable levels. He’s working to provide front-line workers with more soft benefits like tuition assistance for continuing education and counseling to combat “secondary trauma” and “compassion fatigue” that can lead to burnout in the intensely emotional job he calls “the hardest in state government.”

And that’s just part of his job. Mr. Leach needs help, not just from the Legislature but from South Carolinians at large to move more kids into family settings through adoptions, foster care and kinship care. That’s an ideal and a goal embodied by a “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

There are many ways we all can help, and they all start with recognizing the challenges before Mr. Leach and the department he leads — and with recognizing the repercussions for all of us if he doesn’t succeed.

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