Nikki Haley’s pick to lead DSS clears confirmation hurdle

Susan Alford listens to questions by Sen. Thomas McElveen, D-Sumter, during her second confirmation hearing on Tuesday.

COLUMBIA — Susan Alford eased state senators’ concerns about her qualifications to lead the embattled Department of Social Services in clearing a key confirmation hurdle Tuesday.

Alford, 60, received a unanimous recommendation from the Senate’s DSS Director Screening Committee, advancing her nomination to a larger Senate committee. Alford will testify Wednesday before the Full General Committee, which will decide wether to send her nomination to the full Senate for a confirmation vote.

Gov. Nikki Haley’s nomination of Alford, who most recently headed up the Youth Learning Institute’s Girls Center at Clemson University, previously angered some of the senators she faced Tuesday. Some felt slighted by being excluded from Haley’s search for a replacement DSS director, while others questioned whether Alford could turn around an agency plagued by mismanagement, unworkable caseloads and the deaths of dozens of children within its system.

By the end of Tuesday’s testimony, Alford had mostly won them over.

“She strikes me as someone who can turn around the agency both from a morale standpoint and an efficiency standpoint,” said Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Columbia. “She’s very straightforward. She’s very honest about the job at hand; the challenges ahead.”

Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, said Alford’s answers satisfied senators worried about her goals for the agency.

“I don’t think we’re going to find anybody who knows all the answers to all the questions because then why wouldn’t we already have that person,” Shealy said. “I think she’s open to learning. I think she’s approachable, which is somebody that we need.”

Alford was nominated to replace former DSS Director Lillian Koller, who resigned under fire in July amid a Senate investigation into the child deaths and whether Koller had provided misleading information to hide the burdens of caseworkers.

On Tuesday, Alford addressed other areas that need attention, telling Shealy caseloads also are high in adult protective services, and that DSS is seeking more money in its budget for additional staff to lower the burden. Sen. Thomas McElveen, D-Sumter, pressured Alford about who she envisioned would be on her management team, following up on concerns raised last week by Shealy.

“I have to have a well-balanced team,” Alford answered. “I’ve got to get a lot done in four years.”

Shealy, who led a similar line of questioning during last week’s initial confirmation hearing, said it’s important to know if Alford is willing to make management changes at the agency.

“I think that’s important to the morale at the county offices,” Shealy said. “I think if she doesn’t go in there and make changes at the top level management, then the county offices are going to feel like nothing has changed. And if they don’t see changes, then we have accomplished nothing.”

Reach Cynthia Roldan at 708-5891.