Give DSS the resources it needs to protect children

DSS Director Susan Alford testifies at her confirmation hearing in Columbia in February. (Cynthia Roldan/File)

For years, the S.C. Department of Social Services got little attention from the Legislature. It was underfunded and unsuccessful in convincing legislators of the dire problems that occurred as a result.

Now those problems are being addressed, and the needs are more evident than ever.

It was the Senate DSS Oversight Committee that took the lead by investigating the agency for more than a year. Members of that committee deserve credit for drawing attention to the dysfunctional department.

The committee must now follow through by convincing the General Assembly to provide adequate funding to increase the number of caseworkers, which is at a dangerously low level. Fifteen percent of the 747 caseworkers are seeing 50 or more children — more than double the professional standard.

History shows that staff shortages can have tragic results. SLED reported that 41 percent of children whose deaths were investigated in 2013 had interacted with Social Services.

The new DSS director, Susan Alford, told the committee that 99 caseworkers are coming on board in this budget year. Forty of them are in training now and should be on the job by May.

But the number of children in the DSS system has jumped dramatically since Ms. Alford began restructuring the state agency. DSS is now more efficient, so it is receiving more reports of children in need.

She requested an additional 202 caseworkers in the budget for next year. The number being considered is 177.

There is no function of state government that is more important than caring for abandoned, abused and neglected children who need homes and protection.

Legislators who are squeamish about the budget request should think of the human cost of not caring for these children.

Certainly Ms. Alford seems to have a better working relationship with the Senate DSS Oversight Committee than did her predecessor, who was evasive and who withheld information vital to the committee’s investigation. Lillian Koller resigned last summer.

The statistics are persuasive. For example, the number of children in foster care in South Carolina has grown from 3,000 two years ago to 4,000 this year. Unfortunately, the number of foster parents has declined. And the numbers of foster children are likely to grow more when the new evaluation system is fully implemented throughout the state.

Ms. Alford has her work cut out for her. So do legislators, who don’t get votes from abandoned children or get campaign donations from children who have been abused.

Those legislators need to do the right thing, and the right thing is to fund DSS adequately so that it can keep safe those children whom adults have failed.