June 12, 2024

The Nerve Archive

Where Government Gets Exposed

DSS Director Spends Half-Million on Executive Salaries


Ex-realtor, Clemson colleagues among new DSS execs

Susan Alford was brought in as a home-grown fixer.

She was appointed by Gov. Nikki Haley to heal an agency battered by scathing legislative audits and repair a public image shattered by a legacy of more than 150 unreported child deaths. But a source inside the agency says all she has done since her confirmation in January is fix up friends and university pals with high-paying executive positions that didn’t exist before while case workers in the field continue to leave at an alarming rate.

Couple the internal exodus with lawsuits from former employees alleging favoritism, waste and misconduct; scathing legislative audits that laid bare a disturbingly flawed system and public outrage over child after child made a victim of chronic abusers and for former DSS officials, government critics and current agency employees, Alford’s approach of asking the legislature for more money for caseworkers, on the one hand, while actively adding a half-million in executives with the other is a step in the wrong direction.

A lot of chaos”

To say that the situation at DSS leading up to the October 2014 audit was dire is state the obvious to anyone able to comprehend the desperate, catastrophic and far-reaching nature of the harm being done to the most vulnerable of the state’s citizens by a system of caseworkers massively understaffed, underpaid and often under-qualified.

Among that audit’s major findings were that:

  • DSS has not ensured that its workforce is well-qualified and compensated competitively;
  • South Carolina has child welfare caseloads that are excessive and inequitable from county to county;
  • The system for screening and investigating homes where abuse and neglect has been reported is inadequate;
  • Data on child deaths from maltreatment, including those with prior DSS contact, is unreliable due to agency manipulation; and
  • Violent, unexpected and unexplained child fatalities were not being reported or reviewed as required by law.

As public outcry and media attention came to a head in June 2014, former director Lillian Koller, a Haley appointee who led a similar agency in Hawaii, resigned under intense legislative pressure and allegations of favoritism, waste and mismanagement that led to millions of dollars in federal fines, and millions of dollars in contracts to out-of-state firms.

To take her place, Haley moved deputy state director for economic services Amber Gillum into the position temporarily. Facing the media firestorm following the release of the audit in October, Gillum announced an aggressive hiring policy using $6.4 million originally budgeted for the federal Department of Health and Human Services to address the audit’s main concerns.

A December news story, however, reported that while 250 new case workers had been hired since October 2014, the net was only 111 because 139 workers had left. The agency finished with a turnover rate of 39 percent in 2014 and that trend continued into 2015.

With her out-of-state pick a failure and in response to an agency she admitted was dealing with “a lot of chaos” as a result, Haley went to her own Clemson roots and selected Alford – a Clemson University administrator at the time – without the input of the legislators involved in the two-year audit.” Haley praised Alford’s South Carolina roots and experience in the state’s juvenile justice system.

Meanwhile, up to a third of DSS caseworkers were still being expected to see, screen and evaluate anywhere from 50 to 75 or more children per month, the ranks remained thin and thinning and Alford began reorganizing the department organizationally in a way it had not been structured before.

Always room at the top?

Five new executive-level positions paying $100,000 or more have been created under Alford, according to a review by The Nerve of the agency’s organizational charts dating back to 2013, adding half a million dollars to an agency already asking the legislature for an additional $32.6 million in next year’s budget.

  • Alford created a chief of staff position and hired Joan Meacham, a real estate agent from Myrtle Beach for the past 11 years with Burroughs and Chapin. Her husband, Timothy, is an attorney for Coastal Carolina. Meacham had retired previously from being the state director of the S.C. Dept. of Probation Parole and Pardon Services. Though Meacham has worked at DSS long enough for her information to appear on the Department. of Administration’s regularly updated database, it does not. DSS spokeswoman Karen Wingo said she did not have the figure handy late Friday afternoon but confirmed it was more than $100,000 a year.
  • Barbara Derrick was hired as Alford’s Deputy Director of Administrative Services, another position not on previous organizational charts. In 2012, Derrick was one of a number of controversial upper-management hires at the Department of Health and Environmental Control made by former director Catherine Templeton that were criticized as unnecessary. At that time Derrick earned $92,917. At DSS, she currently makes $129,682.
  • Another addition to Alford’s team that was not on the organizational chart before is Haley’s former head of the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation Holly Pisarick. Pisarik resigned from that position in December 2014 to take the position of special assistant to the director, a job Haley created for Pisarik at a salary of $115,000. Pisarik left that position in August to become Haley’s chief counsel. Alford said at the time she intended to fill the position “shortly,” though no replacement has yet been named.
  • Karen Wingo was hired in the newly created position as head of communication and legislative affairs at a salary also not yet showing on the state salary database but believed to be north of $100,000. Wingo previously was an employment lawyer.
  • Alford also has promoted from within to positions that did not exist before. Attorney Taron Davis was working in the office of general counsel before being promoted to the position of interim deputy director for child welfare at a salary of $109,222.

Alford also has turned to Clemson to fill two other existing high-paying positions.

Alford hired attorney Anthony Cantone, who was the chief operating officer of the Youth Learning Institute at Clemson with Alford as the agency’s general counsel at a salary of $135,000 – the second-highest at DSS behind Alford’s $159,130.

Another Clemson associate Alford has brought to DSS is Pam Bryant (Bryant wrote the release for Clemson announcing Alford’s promotion to DSS chief). While Alford was the director of the Girls Center at Clemson’s Youth Learning Center, Bryant was the center’s spokesperson. She now makes $95,000 a year as DSS’s legislative ombudsman.

According to an agency source who asked not to be identified, in addition to the promotion of friends and associates with little to no background in child welfare or family services, Alford also has demoted personnel with long-time agency experience.

Jessica Hanak Coulter previously was the deputy state director for human services and oversaw both child welfare and adult protective services. She now is over the adult advocacy division. According to the agency source, Hanak Coulter “is widely considered to be one of the most competent people at the state office. She was demoted because she was associated with the previous administration.”

“The problems that haunt DSS are because there are not enough caseworkers, not because it needs more bureaucrats.”

When reached Friday, Wingo said the recent executive hires were to bring the agency’s focus in line with its mission and improve constituent services. She referred The Nerve to Alford’s Oct. 21 testimony before a Senate budget subcommittee for additional clarification as to budgetary needs.

Going in the wrong direction”

For long-time DSS observers such as former agency commissioner and Order of the Palmetto recipient Jim Solomon, who ran the agency for nearly a decade from 1984-1992, the creation of additional executive-level positions does not signal an emphasis on caring for abused children.

“The well-being of the citizens that DSS serves, whether it be children or the elderly, both categories of which are very vulnerable, I would think that there’s nothing more important than the agency trying to do its best at providing those services,” said Solomon, currently the director of the Palmetto Development Group. “I don’t want to second-guess the current director at DSS, so I won’t.

“But it is up the director to make the financial case for what the agency needs, and I don’t think there’s ever been an adequate number of trained caseworkers. That has to be a priority.

“Anything that takes away from service to children and their well-being is probably going in the wrong direction.”

John Crangle, executive director of the governmental watchdog group Common Cause, says it’s not surprising that a former educational administrator would approach problems from the top down.

“The problem with educational administrators is you often end up with more chiefs than Indians,” Crangle said. “We need more caseworkers in South Carolina than bureaucrats. Top-heavy bureaucracy is a chronic problem in government and in South Carolina.

“You see it all levels, at the University of South Carolina and at Clemson where you have a lot of administrators at very large salaries and then you pay adjuncts next to nothing and offer online classes because you can pay them less than qualified professors and cut them loose anytime.

“It’s a system that only benefits those at the very top, only in this case its not students receiving a watered-down college education but children in actual danger.”

If Alford gets her wish from the legislature – and in May senators gave her every indication they would – she will have added nearly $40 million to a budget of $692 million that already carries over several million dollars per year in “other” funds it has not allocated to caseworkers.

DSS currently has 13 employees making more than $100,000 a year according to the state salary database minus at least two employees in that range who do not appear on the public record. Since being confirmed in January, Alford herself already has received a raise of $4,230, from $154,900 to $159,130.

Reach Ron at 803-254-4411. Email him at ron@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @RonAiken and @TheNerveSC. 

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