Columbia, SC (WLTX) - In at least 3 cases, the South Carolina Department of Social Services is dropping the ball, according to senators who heard testimony about the agency Wednesday.
"Something is not right," said Senator Joel Lourie (D-Richland & Kershaw).
Lourie sits on a Senate subcommittee that oversees DSS. After testimony from the agency's deputy director Wednesday, he suggested changes after allegations case workers are overloaded and some cases fall through the cracks.
"I think we need to drill down on the caseworkers," Lourie said. "I think what we'll find, that there's a high turnover rate of case workers. I'm being told from advocates throughout the state that they're overworked, they feel a lot of pressure, and they've got to meet these goals."
According to testimony, right now 140 caseworker positions are vacant within the agency and over half of the regional directors across the state have left their posts in the last two years.
"Any time you get rapid turnover in an area as important as child protection, it does raise a red flag," Lourie said.
DSS Deputy Director Jessica Hannett Coulter testified on the intake process at the agency. It's the first point of contact when DSS is notified about a situation involving a child.
"This is difficult work. We see some very difficult situations," Hannett Coulter said. "Through the work we've been doing across the state, we've increased the number of families that are receiving services."
One reason why--DSS sends some cases to outside agencies, like Growing Homes Southeast, which serves the Midlands, according to Hannett Coulter.
If the case is too severe though, that outside agency sends the case back to DSS. The case hand-off has the subcommittee concerned the intake process might not be vetting cases enough.
"If something goes wrong on that intake, and it's 5 days, 7 days, whatever before DSS gets back involved, those can be critical days," Lourie said. "A child's life can be in danger."
DSS Director Lillian Koller did not testify Wednesday, sending notice to the subcommittee she's recovering from a stroke.
She did email a statement after the hearing saying, "We are dedicated to providing the best and most responsive care for children and families across South Carolina and welcome any legislative oversight and input from the community to help achieve these goals. In an effort to make this process as transparent as possible, while still protecting the privacy and rights of the victims, we look forward to working with the General Assembly to reform any laws currently preventing a more complete and appropriate disclosure of the facts."