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Lawmakers say caseloads are too high for workers responsible for keeping South Carolina's abused and neglected children.

COLUMBIA — Caseloads remain too high for workers responsible for keeping South Carolina's abused and neglected children safe, lawmakers agree.

Statewide, 350 social workers — or 40 percent — are responsible for the safety of more than 40 children each; 22 of those workers are handling more than 75 cases each as well.

Just one third are overseeing fewer than 25 cases, a goal the Department of Social Services set four years ago amid Senate hearings that focused on children's deaths and overburdened staff. 

Legislators have since funded hundreds of additional hires at the agency.

Still, in Charleston County one worker is juggling 97 cases. In Berkeley County, the highest caseload is 84, according to DSS data as of last month for work loads in the agency's child protective services division.

"We've got to move forward instead of backward. We've got to make a difference," Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, told DSS officials giving an update on the agency's progress at the Statehouse on Thursday. 

Keeping good employees is key, Shealy said. 

"We've got to figure out a way to make them stay," she said.

Regionalized call centers help explain the high numbers in some counties, said DSS spokeswoman Karen Wingo.

Regionalizing call centers led to a spike in cases as more people were able to get someone on the phone to report suspected cases of abuse or neglect. Many counties came on board during phase two last year.

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Workers with the highest caseloads are generally handling initial reviews on those calls, Wingo said. 

Shealy said she doesn't buy that excuse, prompting Wingo to say the numbers are obviously not "where we want them to be." 

The agency began regionalizing call centers in 2015 but had to put the roll out on hold due to spikes until the agency could boost its ranks, Director Susan Alford has said.

"They're getting to more children the state wasn't finding out before and that's good," said Sen. Tom Young, R-Aiken, who leads the Senate's DSS panel. "We don't want children falling through the cracks."  

But the caseloads must come down, he said. 

Alford's predecessor, Lillian Koller, resigned in June 2014 on the eve of a no-confidence vote in the Senate, after then-Gov. Nikki Haley refused repeated calls to fire her. Koller had insisted to senators the agency needed no additional money or staff despite deep, Great Recession-era cuts. 

Follow Seanna Adcox on Twitter at @seannaadcox_pc.

Assistant Columbia bureau chief

Adcox returned to The Post and Courier in October 2017 after 12 years covering the Statehouse for The Associated Press. She previously covered education for The P&C. She has also worked for The AP in Albany, N.Y., and for The Herald in Rock Hill.

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