COLUMBIA (AP) - The head of South Carolina's child welfare agency is asking for $127 million more next year to help turn around an embattled agency criticized for failing children.
Department of Social Services Director Michael Leach wants the General Assembly to boost the budget to pay for staff salary increases and the hiring of more caseworkers. The State newspaper reports those are among several spending hikes Leach sought in his first budget request to lawmakers.
Of the new financing requested, $8 million would pay for about 85 new, full-time positions; $23 million would raise the starting pay for caseworkers to between $46,000 and $50,000, up from the mid-$30,000 range; and $6 million would bump up pay by 5% for 2,200 employees across the agency.
Leach said in a statement that the department needs "professional staff with the knowledge and credentials necessary to do this complex work. This will require the department to have a sufficient number of staff to manage caseloads and the ability to provide competitive salaries to recruit and retain experienced and quality staff."
State budget writers said they aren't yet sold on spending millions to fix an agency that has been slow to show results. But legislators said they're encouraged that Leach has shown an eagerness to change agency culture.
That is "refreshing," said House budget chief Murrell Smith, a Sumter Republican whose committee does the first work on the state's spending plan. "But as I've expressed to him: I don't fund promises. We fund results."
The department has struggled for years, with heavy caseloads, low morale and high turnover of child welfare workers.
In 2015, South Carolina was named in a federal class-action lawsuit accusing the state of lacking basic health care and other services for vulnerable children under social services' care. The lawsuit was settled, and federal officials are monitoring progress.
Dozens of budget requests have been posted publicly ahead of the Legislature's return to work in January. Lawmakers have $1.8 billion more to spend next year in the $10.2 billion spending plan that starts July 1.
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