Earlier this year, when South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster nominated Michael Leach to lead the S.C. Department of Social Services, some observers wondered how he might turn around the agency’s embattled child-welfare services unit. Leach is getting good early reviews as he tackles the department’s longstanding challenges with caseworker and funding shortages, low employee morale and a federal class-action lawsuit. Given the Endowment’s history of supporting child welfare practice improvement in both Carolinas, we recently sat down with the new director to ask how things are going.
Q: What’s one thing you’d like everyone to know about the S.C. Department of Social Services?
A: That we work with about one in six citizens of South Carolina through a variety of programs – it could be child support, it could be economic services, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or child welfare. We're trying to strengthen families and build protective factors so that they can be successful.
Q: There’s an old saying that a bad system or a bad organizational culture trumps a good program every time. How do you turn this ship around, culturally?
A: I don't think it's a bad system, I just think it's under-resourced. In this system over the last few years, there’s been a fear-based culture where decisions that have been made or mistakes that have been made led to people getting fired. And that leads to more fear and people not feeling empowered to make good decisions. We're focused on understanding that culture and figuring out how to change that.
Q: How will you make that change happen?
A: It’s a long process that never ends. We start with making sure people are aware of the culture that we want. We want professionals modeling the way, encouraging others and exhibiting our core values of Competence, Courage and Compassion. I want people to see that I'm involved in casework, that I'm talking to all levels of the system, that I'm challenging them through policies and practices. I think we need to continue to update our policies and practices to where we become a 21st century system that is resourced, so it is a standard of excellence for the country.
Q: Let’s talk about the Family First Prevention Services Act, the sweeping new federal child welfare reform law that seeks to expand mental health treatment, in-home parent education and substance abuse evidence-based services, while reducing placement of children in congregate care. It also calls for improving recruitment and retention of foster- and kinship-care families. How is all of that going to change or challenge what you’re trying to do in South Carolina?
A: It's a huge challenge, but it's a positive challenge. It moves us toward expanding prevention services, preserving families and keeping them together. We decided as a state to delay implementation as we continue to bring work groups and our partners together, to understand how this is going to affect us all. We want to make sure that we put the appropriate policies and practices in place and have good guidance from the (federal) Children's Bureau. So as we learn from them, as we learn from other states who are going to implement, I think we'll be successful in moving forward in the best way.
Q: Finding and retaining enough foster parents is always a challenge. How will you address it?
A: We recognize that our current foster parents are vital to our recruitment efforts, so positive relationships with foster parents are key. I think part of our focus needs to be strengthening our foster parent training on the front-end, understanding trauma and knowing how to best support our foster parents in working with young people with trauma. We have put in place a dedicated foster parent liaison and have been holding local town hall meetings with foster parents across the state. We’re rolling out a foster parent handbook and we will beef up our website to include more Q-and-As and other helpful information. We want to make sure we communicate and respond to foster parents in a timely fashion, so their experience might encourage others to consider fostering.
Q: You also have the challenge of recruiting and training enough social workers. How are you addressing that?
A: We started looking at our training to social workers upon being hired. What do we need to do to enhance it? What's the ongoing training that we're going to provide them? We haven't made all the necessary changes in five months, but we've identified where our needs are. Providing the support that I talked about is key. Our staff want to be cared about and believed in, and we have to focus our energy on making sure they have the resources to do their jobs well. So decreasing caseloads and hiring more staff to serve families will be critical.
Q: DSS is under a settlement agreement in the federal Michelle H. class action lawsuit. It requires substantial systemic improvements to the child welfare system. You helped Tennessee exit a similar federal case. How does your experience in Tennessee inform what you’re going to do with the litigation in South Carolina?
A: What I bring from my experiences in Tennessee is an understanding of how it takes everybody being on the same page, with consistent leadership. There was a sense of urgency in Tennessee. And it was a team effort, from the front-line professional all the way to the top leader, in understanding what we were trying to achieve. And that was getting the children timely permanency, addressing their well-being needs, making sure they're safe and having the processes in place to do it. And that's what we're trying to do here. But some of it's missing.
Q: What's the biggest piece or pieces that are missing?
A: We need the proper assessment tools. I think it's having the practice model; it's understanding how we do placement well, understanding the importance of visitation with the caregivers and how that leads to permanency. It’s making sure that we work with Medicaid and all the local physicians so our kids are getting their medical and dental needs met. It’s about having tools and the data readily available to monitor our children over time.
I think that another piece that we need, outside of processes and consistent leadership, is the funding – having enough front-line professionals to do the work, having enough caseworker assistants and people that can support the work. And having experts in education and health and other things to wrap around our staff. And without that, lawsuits go on for a very long time.
Q: Do you see a role for philanthropy in helping improve outcomes for children and families in the child welfare system? And if so, what is that role?
A: The state has only so much money and resources, and there are often restrictions for its use. I believe in private-public partnerships because I think that can go a long way toward filling the gaps. I think a good example is The Duke Endowment grant we’ve received that brings in technical assistance for improving our child and family team meeting process, improving our assessment process and our practice model work. This grant strengthens our efforts to improve practice.
Q: Any parting thoughts?
A: I’m excited to be in South Carolina. This is an amazing opportunity with a social service department that has amazing people. So it’s exciting to be able to lead, provide insight, guidance and coaching on how to do this work better, so our staff can succeed and our families can be successful.