Deputy director Taron Davis told a Senate panel this week that 73 caseworkers still have caseloads of more than 50 children — more than double the caseload goals set in 2014 amid increased scrutiny from legislators.
The goal of having one social worker for every 24 children has been met in only seven of the state's 46 counties, according to an agency chart dated Feb. 1.
DSS is evaluating how many more caseworkers it needs and whether grants will pay for temporary positions, Davis said Wednesday.
"Every day that goes by represents more children slipping through the cracks," said Sen. Thomas McElveen, D-Sumter, urging a quick review.
The agency's previous director resigned in June 2014 on the eve of a no-confidence vote in the Senate, following hearings that focused on children's deaths and high caseloads.
The budget legislators passed last June provided DSS money to add 177 employees specifically for child protective services, as the agency requested. Only seven of those slots remain to be filled, Davis said.
Senators noted that there has been improvement overall. Last August, 130 caseworkers had caseloads of at least 50 children.
Still, caseloads have actually grown in some counties in the past six months. Davis acknowledged that one caseworker in Anderson County is responsible for 119 children. Four other caseworkers in that county were overseeing at least 85 children, as of Feb. 1.
"That's startling to us, as well, and concerning," Davis said.
The agency is working with county directors to improve the distribution of cases, so it's not "just randomly done," she said. Struggling counties weren't "giving attention to how many cases that worker already had."
Five newly hired regional directors, who were introduced to senators Wednesday, should also help with the day-to-day management, Davis said.
Senators commended DSS for progress in retaining caseworkers. The annual turnover rate fell from 39 percent statewide in 2014 to 27 percent last year. Davis said a realistic future turnover goal for workers in the high-stress job would be 20 percent.
One of the biggest drops occurred in Richland County, from 104 percent in 2014 to 58 percent in 2015.
"We were losing more people than we were bringing in. The doors were spinning wildly," said Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Columbia. "Cutting that in half is a remarkable accomplishment."
Vacancies due to turnover contributed to the caseload problem. Since former Director Lillian Koller resigned, the agency has seen a net gain of 265 child welfare workers — reflecting 639 hires and 374 departures, according to an agency chart. About 60 child welfare positions are currently vacant, Davis said.
"The big takeaway is that, overall, the department is doing more hiring and keeping more staff than are walking out of the door," Davis said.
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