Safety of SC children will suffer without more money in social services budget, agency says

·4 min read

The state agency that oversees the welfare of children and vulnerable adults in South Carolina is asking the General Assembly to invest more money into the agency to help it fulfill the requirements of a federal lawsuit settlement.

Without additional dollars, the Department of Social Services won’t be able to effectively care for children in the child welfare system, agency officials said.

The agency asked legislative budget writers for nearly $63 million in additional state dollars for more case managers, treatment programs, programs to help foster families navigate financial assistance programs, and employee raises, among other things.

“It’s a lot of continued foundation building so that we can continue to move this work forward and transform the work we do for our citizens,” DSS Director Michael Leach told a panel of lawmakers during a recent budget presentation. “The foundation and decisions being built now with this leadership will allow DSS to be able to be truly innovative over the next five to 10 years.”

For the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1, the agency asked legislative budget writers for $53.8 million more in annual state dollars, $9 million in one-time dollars. For the current fiscal year, which ends on June 30, DSS was appropriated a total of $260 million of state money.

Much of the agency’s budget request is aimed at fulfilling the requirements under the Michelle H settlement that the state agreed to in 2016 after it overly relied on group home or congregate care settings rather than family-like settings, and the state did not meet medical and food needs of children in foster care.

The state also had high caseloads for caseworkers, along with high turnover, which led to case management issues.

DSS has been working on addressing the Michelle H. lawsuit issues for the last six years, said Connelly-Anne Ragley, director of communications and external affairs for DSS.

“We’ve done everything we can as an agency in moving things forward without additional investment from the General Assembly,” Ragley said. “We’re at the point now if we don’t have additional investment, transformation is going to grind to a halt.”

DSS asked for more money to hire additional case managers and supervisors for children in foster care, provide health and dental care for children in the state’s custody, money to help 18- to 21-year-olds who were in foster care transition into adulthood, and increase the number of paralegals to move child welfare cases through the courts faster.

“The overarching framework for our 2023 budget request includes the remaining funding necessary to meet existing priorities that provide for adequate child welfare transformation efforts, currently underway, (and) includes funding to meet milestones required to comply with Michelle H lawsuit final settlement agreement,” Leach said.

Part of the agency’s budget request includes $18 million to restore money for jobs in the child welfare system, economic services and adult protective services programs. The agency also is making sure it is able to receive reimbursement for every child who qualifies for federal child welfare dollars.

Between the 2015 and 2021 budget years, the state missed out on about $90 million of federal money, because the agency did not draw down the federal dollars it was allowed to, said Leach, who took over the agency in the spring of 2019.

“What you do every year is you put yourself into a bigger and bigger gap by not drawing down those federal dollars with more costs,” Leach said.

It may take five to 10 years before the agency catches up, Leach said.

“I just hope we can look at the advantages of drawing down the matching (dollars), which is our responsibility here and hopefully that will improve,” said state Rep. Bill Clyburn, D-Aiken.

The request includes $5.8 million for congregate care facilities to become certified as qualified residential treatment providers and nearly $2.9 million of state money to improve staffing for placing children in foster care.

Even though DSS has made some improvements, it doesn’t have a system to match children with needed services and has insufficient foster therapeutic foster homes, among other issues.

“I know we’re not where we want to be, but we’re a heck of a lot better than we were and we’re getting there,” said Heather Ammons Crawford, R-Horry. “We all want to get there quicker, but, hey, we didn’t get here overnight, and so we’re not going to fix it overnight.”

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