Senate panel questions Haley's pick to lead DSS

Susan Alford is going through confirmation hearings as the governor’s nominee as the new head of S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.

COLUMBIA — Gov. Nikki Haley’s nominee to head the Department of Social Services told lawmakers it will take years to fix the embattled child welfare agency, but believed it will be the most important job she’ll ever do.

Susan Alford told the Senate General Committee on Wednesday she takes the role of creating quality services for children very seriously, and believes the agency already has a blueprint for change.

“I have a long history of working with children,” Alford said. “I believe that we have the chance right now to do dramatic changes.”

Alford, 60, was nominated to replace former DSS Director Lillian Koller, who resigned under fire in July amid a Senate investigation into allegations of mismanagement, unworkable caseloads and reports of the deaths of dozens of children within its system.

If confirmed by the Senate, Alford would be stepping into perhaps the most scrutinized position in state government, with lawmakers pledging to take a “hard look” at Haley’s choice after senators said they were surprised they weren’t part of the search for a replacement DSS chief.

Alford said she believed DSS has a lot of similar issues she encountered at the Department of Juvenile Justice, where she worked for 13 years as an administrator. She said many of the problems at DSS can be traced to excessive case loads and turnover of staff.

She said it would be her job to determine why caseloads are so high, and to figure out how to bring them down. She also had to get to the root of why staffers are leaving, adding that just paying them more isn’t the answer.

To tackle those issues, Alford will need to receive the recommendation of the panel she faced Wednesday, a second larger panel, and, eventually, the full Senate.

Among the tough questions Alford faced Wednesday is who would be in charge of the agency.

In December, Haley said Alford would work closely with the team that has been in place at DSS, including Deputy Director Jessica Hanak-Coulter and Acting Director Amber Gillum. Holly Pisarik, director of the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, will be serving Alford’s special assistant.

“You should be able to be the person to be in charge,” said Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington. “If we make you the director, we don’t need three other people leading the agency. Susan Alford needs to be leading the agency. And the buck has to stop with Susan Alford.”

Sen. Tom Young, R-Aiken, said DSS still has many of the same issues it did in the late 1980s, when the state conducted an audit of the agency, adding “we really are counting on you if you’re confirmed to address these areas.”

“It would take years to get at the issues that will get at the root cause,” Alford said. “I don’t want to leave the false impression that two years from now you’ll look at the agency and say it’s fixed.”

Alford’s salary would be $154,900, the same as the former director.

Reach Cynthia Roldan at 708-5891.