Netflix subscribers across the world are in shock from the images depicted in the documentary “The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez.”
If anyone couldn’t make it through that documentary there is no shame in that. Many have said it is difficult to finish the entire series. However, there are lessons to be learned from the horrific torture and murder of an innocent 8-year-old child.
One of the lessons that can be learned is that the South Carolina Department of Social Services (DSS) is at-risk of replicating the same level of negligence for reasons that can’t be pinned on the DSS caseworkers.
Long work hours, heavy demands, judicial interference, and lack of support are just some of the reasons why some in South Carolina suspect that this state could have issues with protecting children. For years, several publications and news outlets including Charleston’s Post & Courier, WLTX, The State, and others, have reported on the caseload issue with DSS caseworkers. During those same years and even now, DSS has been promising a better and more efficient way to administer crucial services to the children of South Carolina.
However, the results demand an answer to why there hasn’t been an improvement.
While there may be a valid criticism(s) of individual SC DSS Employees there also must be a balance of viewpoint. Some of the failures of SC DSS aren’t related to anything the average DSS Case Worker and others have done wrong. Instead, the agency itself and the SC Legislators have failed these state employees.
Overworked Case Workers
Here is a quote from a 2016 Court Case involving SC DSS:
“Excessive caseworker caseloads and an unstable foster care workforce that cannot provide basic monitoring of children’s safety. The caseloads of foster care caseworkers and child protective services investigators frequently exceed two times and often three or four times national standards and DSS’s policy standards. As found by the South Carolina General Assembly Legislative Audit Council in its October 2014 report (the “2014 LAC Report”), DSS child welfare caseloads are “excessive, reducing the amount of attention that can be given to each child” and “reducing the ability of caseworkers to investigate and prevent child abuse and neglect.” These high caseloads (many as high as 50, 60 or even 75 children per worker), combined with persistent high turnover, resulting in an unstable workforce that does not and cannot provide basic monitoring of children’s safety.”
In 2015, South Carolina was named in a Federal Lawsuit filed against then-SC Governor Nikki Haley and SC DSS. The suit alleged that the state lacked basic healthcare and care for minors, covered up instances of child maltreatment for children in foster care, and other serious allegations. The suit was filed by Attorney Matthew Richardson, South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center, and Children’s Rights, a nationally recognized children’s advocacy group.
One of the reasons why there are situations where an SC DSS Case Worker could unintentionally misidentify child abuse or neglect is due to being overworked. In 2016, it was reported that an SC DSS told an SC Senate DSS Oversight Committee that the average caseload for DSS caseworkers in Upstate South Carolina was “concerning and startling.”
It was also revealed that an Anderson, SC DSS Caseworker was managing an unbelievable 119 children. In The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez Documentary, an LA, California Department of Children and Families (DCFS) Supervisor managed 280 cases at the most. That was with 6 social workers helping out. Yet, a single SC DSS Caseworker has to somehow manage cases with over 100 children involved?
So, how bad is the problem?
There is a reason why a child advocacy group such as Children’s Rights would jump onto a lawsuit against South Carolina. The advocacy group has conducted their research and their reports about the state’s inadequate care towards children. This research has been verified and reported on by award-winning publications such as Charleston’s Post & Courier.
In January 2015, a lawsuit known as Michelle H. v. McMaster was filed in a US District Court. The case was settled on October 6, 2016. As a result of the lawsuit, a monitoring report is supposed to be generated until SC DSS can meet standards befitting of an agency charged with the welfare of children. Several monitoring reports, required per the lawsuit, were generated.
When the workload is so unreasonable there can be disastrous results. Another look into the findings of that lawsuit reveals what could happen when SC DSS Caseworkers are overworked.
Here is an excerpt of the court proceedings and results:
“DSS has long operated, and continues to operate, a system in which Plaintiff Children are the victims, or remain at risk of becoming victims, of three specific unaddressed deficiencies:
A drastic shortage of foster homes. DSS fails to maintain an adequate number and kind of foster homes and other appropriate living situations for children. According to the June 2014 DSS Child and Family Services Plan for FFY 20152019 (the “2014 DSS Plan”), DSS “did not regularly put the child in placement settings appropriate for the child – examples include group home settings and shelters.” A 2008 report of the Governor’s Task Force on Children in Foster Care and Adoption Services (the “2008 Governor’s Task Force”) found that DSS’s “insufficient number of foster homes” leads to “the inability to match children’s needs to available foster homes.”
Excessive caseworker caseloads and an unstable foster care workforce that cannot provide basic monitoring of children’s safety. The caseloads of foster care caseworkers and child protective services investigators frequently exceed two times and often three or four times national standards and DSS’s policy standards. As found by the South Carolina General Assembly Legislative Audit Council in its October 2014 report (the “2014 LAC Report”), DSS child welfare caseloads are “excessive, reducing the amount of attention that can be given to each child” and “reducing the ability of caseworkers to investigate and prevent child abuse and neglect.” These high caseloads (many as high as 50, 60 or even 75 children per worker), combined with persistent high turnover, resulting in an unstable workforce that does not and cannot provide basic monitoring of children’s safety.
The failure to provide basic health care services. DSS fails to ensure timely medical, dental and mental health assessments, periodic screens and required treatment for children in DSS custody. The 2014 DSS Plan documents a “lack of medical assessments, medical or dental records on file or collateral contacts made with medical providers to obtain assessments or documentation of appointments, make referrals to address medical issues” as well as a lack of “medications and contacts with service providers.” The 2014 DSS Plan also found that “appropriate referrals… were not made,” including “psychological evaluations” and “mental health screenings.” The 2010 DSS Annual Progress and Services Report (the “2010 DSS Annual Report”) similarly found that many foster children’s medical needs are not monitored and children frequently do not receive needed to follow up treatment.”
Not Worth The Pay
The starting salaries for SC DSS Case Workers are lower than most other states in the union, according to several sources.
Let’s take an example of the starting pay of an SC DSS Child Protective Services (CPS) Case Worker. There is a job listing showing an opening for a Human Services Specialist II (CPS Case Worker) in Williamsburg, SC. The hiring range maximum pay for this position is $39,228.00. This position has a lot of requirements.
Here are just a few of the requirements:
- A Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work, Behavioral Science, Social Science, or a degree with 1-year experience in a related field.
- Participate in child-danger and child-safety assessments.
- Perform Red Cross or emergency-related duties as directed.
- A direct quote states “Must have the ability to cope with stressful work situations and life-threatening situations.” In other words, an applicant, for a hiring range maximum of less than $40,000 is expected to deal with life-threatening situations along with all of the other duties.
- Be available for occasional overnight duties.
- Must be available for scheduled after work duties.
- Be exposed to child fatalities.
- Be exposed to unsafe, unsanitary and volatile environments situations.
- Coordinate with lawyers, law enforcement and judges, prepare legal documents, and testify in court.
This person would receive under $40,000. The hiring range maximum is in place even though a 4-year degree from the University of South Carolina-Columbia would cost $25,957 for an SC resident in 2019-2020. Let’s say that the price remains the same for 4 years. At that rate and with the hiring range maximum for the SC DSS Case Worker position, it would take that newly hired Case Worker 2.6 years to pay off their USC-Columbia degree if they never ate or paid bills.
Indeed.com provides a good comparison of the pay between SC DSS Case Workers and Case Workers in other states. The site took salary information from users and also from job listing to produce an average salary by job title/position.
According to Indeed, the average base Adoption Case Worker in the US makes close to $44,952 a year. A new SC DSS Adoptions Case Worker in Greenville would receive the hiring range maximum of $39,228. That is $5,724 less than the average provided by Indeed.
The website also shows that the average salary for a Child Protective Services Case Worker is $43,323. A new SC DSS CPS Case Worker would start with $4,095 less than the average base salary, according to Indeed. Any SC DSS Case Worker job listing presents a lower base salary than the national average.
These people are expected to work for less than average pay, be put into dangerous situations, be swamped with work and, be subject to appear in court to testify even on days off.
Social/Case Worker Stress
The study found that Social Workers, Human Health Services (First Responders, EMS, etc.), and Case Workers have higher average levels of stress than any other profession. That isn’t to suggest that a US Soldier isn’t going through a much more stressful situation than a Social Worker. However, that Social Worker, over a longer period of avoiding the bullets the soldier has to face, would be exposed to more stressful situations.
It isn’t the sprint of these numbers but the lifelong marathon of being exposed to the situation after situation. A soldier could be exposed to war over the years but eventually, would stop seeing war and death. SC DSS Case Workers, in many cases, are exposed to child fatalities for years. Think of the most gruesome child fatality and imagine a person with more than a hundred kids in their caseload having to witness this but having no time to grieve as more children are waiting for help.
It isn’t just South Carolina or the United States who have these issues. Other countries have taken notice. The University of Plymouth in England analyzed surveys from British Social Workers. The surveys were sent out by the British Association of Social Workers and Community Care. Overall, the results show troubling patterns.
Many Social Workers who responded to the survey said that they developed eating disorders, use alcohol, and other coping mechanisms to cope with workplace stress.
Here is a quote:
“Fifty-seven percent of respondents said they had used emotional eating as a mechanism to cope with work-related stress, a similar proportion to that found in previous research (60%) by Community Care. Neither individual (such as gender and age) nor team/client group characteristics were particularly associated with emotional eating.
Over a third (35%) of social workers in our sample reported using alcohol to cope with work-related stress. Practitioners aged 40-49 had the highest usage (39%) and men reported higher levels of alcohol use (45%) than women (33%). Sector-wise we found the highest levels of alcohol consumption among those working in learning disability (54.5%) and children’s services permanency and transition teams (52.6%).
Six percent of respondents had used drugs in the past 12 months to cope with work-related stress. The most popular drug was marijuana with 15 participants stating they had used it. Other drug choices included MDMA (ecstasy), cocaine, and codeine.
Neither individual characteristics nor team/client group ones were positively associated with drug use. The results may have been affected by social desirability bias – respondents being cautious about admitting to what may be construed as ethical misconduct.”
In other words, the people who are supposed to be looking after the welfare of children is being overworked, underpaid and being made to inject themselves into stressful, and even dangerous situations, and are self-medicating to cope. If this is occurring with the British who have the National Health Service with taxpayer healthcare then what is happening in the United States where Social Workers have to pay out-of-pocket for their healthcare?
Is it reasonable to have people who are so stressed out at work from caseloads and situations that some have admitted to using cocaine and MDMA to try to cope?
Year after year, DSS leadership and administration has to ask SC legislators and the Governor for more money.
Is South Carolina leadership, legislators, executive governance, and others, comfortable with having an agent who is charged with protecting children having to ask for more money? If you had an organization or an agency who was charged with protecting your children and you had the budget that SC Legislators have at their disposal would you ever allow underfunding?
In February 2019, The State reported that SC Lawmakers rejected millions of dollars for DSS to hire more Case Workers. In January 2020, The State reported that SC Sen. Shane Massey was fast-tracking a bill that was supposed to reveal money that was being shuffled around by SC Legislators for “pet projects.” In just two years one can summarize the priorities that some SC Legislators have. Funding Case Workers who can protect children didn’t appear to be as important as “pet projects.”
If the above information from The State isn’t convincing then consider the information already discussed in this article. One of the reasons for the 2016 lawsuit was specifically because DSS Case Workers had consistently large caseload numbers. This was a result of DSS not having enough money to try to make more job postings for Case Workers as the February 2019 State article reveals.
South Carolina Legislators and the Governor are essentially holding DSS accountable for failures when many of those failures wouldn’t exist if the agency had the proper funding. As suggested before, unless more money is generated for pay increases and job postings, not many would willingly want to pay USC-Columbia more than $100,000 for a Bachelor’s Degree to be underpaid in a dangerous, stressful, and sometimes life-altering job.
As mentioned at the beginning of the article, there are valid criticisms that can be directed at select bad actors. Some criticisms describe criminal behavior. However, much of the problems with SC DSS isn’t related to the employees. One could argue that Case Workers are making do without suitable support, funding, and relief from excessive caseloads.
Human error is to be expected with the described work conditions and lower-than-average pay serving as a lack of motivation. Those errors could be ignored provided no child is harmed. In no way should SC DSS Case Workers be blamed for work environments that are chaotic, unreasonable, and dangerous, as they would have no way of controlling that. These people are human beings who are often given so many tasks that is becomes impossible to keep track of children who may need the most attention.
However, how many errors would you allow to affect your child? Suppose for a second that an overworked, underpaid and stressed out Case Worker had to decide if your child was experiencing abuse or not?