Originally created 05/03/04

DSS could face penalties



COLUMBIA, S.C. -- The state Department of Social Services may face an $8 million penalty for failing to meet federal standards and any further budget cuts could keep it from its core mission of protecting children and vulnerable adults, agency director Kim Aydlette is telling lawmakers.

Aydlette said her agency's budget has been cut 33 percent since 2001 to $80 million. In that period, the department has lost 1,300 employees, while the number of clients has increased to 485,000 from 305,000 in 2001.

Unless Aydlette can persuade lawmakers to change course, she said Social Services will need to cut as much as $5 million more from its budget next year.

Almost all the agency's programs are mandated by state or federal law and Aydlette says she does not know where to cut.

"We really are at a crisis, and it's hard to get people's attention," Aydlette said.

The optional programs include clothing and education allowances for foster children, teen pregnancy prevention and efforts to help clients get drug abuse treatment. They total about $1 million in state funds but are matched by $3.1 million in federal dollars that would be lost.

Aydlette says even cutting optional programs would make up only a fraction of the cut the agency needs to make.

Sen. Verne Smith, R-Greenville, who oversees the Senate Finance subcommittee responsible for human service agencies, helps write the DSS and other budgets. "I agree with her that she's being cut a lot more than serves the public interest," Smith said. "So are other departments, like Mental Health, Disabilities and Special Needs."

Smith said part of the problem is the refusal by his Republican colleagues in the House, Senate and governor's office to raise taxes, including Smith's proposal to boost the cigarette tax.

"She's just going to have to cut where she has to cut," Smith said. "I'm sorry it's that way. But we've got some kind of a 'tax cut' mentality in our government, and it seems like people approve that."

But, when dollars are cut from Social Services, that means a loss of federal dollars and the possibility of penalties.

Two areas where the department is likely to face federal sanctions are adoptions and Temporary Aid to Needy Families that replaced welfare. The agency has lost 29 percent of its adoption workers and adoptions take almost four years on average. The federal goal is closer to two years.

In the aid to families program, states are expected to have half their clients in classes or jobs at any one point. Many counties are not reaching that goal, including Richland, where only 35 percent are in those programs.

The cuts have gotten so severe that some employees, such as Richland County caseworker Colleen Ann Morrow are buying their own office supplies.

"I'm one of the few people in the building that has Scotch tape," Morrow whispers, gesturing at her desk. "I bought pens; I bought my own paper clips. I'm not the only one, by any means. We all do that."

Child and family welfare advocates say the cuts are taxing already overloaded caseworkers.

"I don't think the general public is aware of how devastating these cuts are," said Beebe James, coordinator of the State Network of Children's Advocacy Centers.

She worries children will be on the line while the agency tries to adjust.

"The fact that there's not much hope to change the budget means that everyday people on the streets are going to have to really begin to pay attention with what's going on with the children that they come into contact with," she said.