Gov. Nikki Haley accepted Lillian Koller's resignation Monday morning, her office said.
"It has become more and more apparent to me during the past few weeks that my being the state director is causing a distraction and making it more difficult for DSS to continue the measurable improvements made to the agency during my tenure," Koller wrote in her letter.
The Senate was expected Tuesday to debate a bi-partisan measure saying the agency under Koller's leadership has failed to protect the state's abused and neglected children. Senators agreed unanimously last Thursday to place the resolution directly on the calendar, bypassing the committee process and allowing a vote in the session's official final week. Also this week, Koller was to testify a third time before a Senate panel investigating problems at the agency.
Haley has repeatedly backed Koller, despite calls for her ousting. The Republican governor has dismissed such calls as election-year politics, as those making them included her Democratic challenger, Sen. Vincent Sheheen, and former primary opponent Tom Ervin, who said he entered the gubernatorial race because he was angry about DSS. But the calls have become increasingly bi-partisan, to include the Senate's top Republican, Senate President Pro Tem John Courson. The Senate's no-confidence measure is sponsored by four Republicans and three Democrats.
On Thursday, Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Columbia, called Haley's refusal to fire Koller an act of negligence. He sits on the bi-partisan panel that has held hearings on the agency since January.
Lourie said Koller's departure is long overdue, noting children's advocates have written letters of concern since last summer.
While Koller is no longer expected at Wednesday's hearing, the panel will continue to meet. Its expected recommendations for next year's budget debate include the appropriate number of social workers and their salaries.
"Today is not a day to celebrate. It's a first step to restructure the Department of Social services," Lourie said. "Removing Koller from the equation is not going to fix all the problems at DSS."
In her last appearance before the panel, Koller acknowledged that the caseloads of many social workers who oversee children's welfare are too large. Her agency had repeatedly said the average caseload statewide was six, which didn't match what senators were hearing from overwhelmed workers.
Haley's office said Amber Gillum, the agency's deputy director for economic services, will take over as interim director until Haley appoints Koller's replacement.
"Today, as she has every day since coming to South Carolina, Lillian has put the well-being of the children of our state above her own. We have been lucky to have her, and I will continue to be proud of Lillian," Haley said in a statement. "Under her leadership, DSS closed a $28 million deficit, moved more than 20,000 South Carolinians from welfare to work, and has done wonders to improve our foster care system, placing more South Carolina children in stable, healthy families."
Allegations the Senate panel has been examining include that Koller's management method for meeting priorities has resulted in decisions that put numbers ahead of what's best for children and created low morale and high turnover among employees. Koller has denied that. The hearings have focused on the deaths of two children in Richland County and one in Charleston County.
Last month, Haley released her plan for improving child-welfare services in Richland County. It involves hiring 20 caseworkers for the county over the next five months and in the meantime, redirecting 20 caseworkers from elsewhere. But senators complain the problem isn't limited to Richland County. They also question why Koller did not request additional personnel until after the hearings began.
The Legislative Audit Council has been auditing the agency. Its report is expected this summer.
Haley nominated Koller to lead the Cabinet agency soon after taking office in January 2011. Koller had been director of Hawaii's Department of Human Services, which includes social services, since 2003, under that state's former Republican governor. Her salary as South Carolina's DSS director was $154,900.