The rumors you may have heard are true: the South Carolina Department of Social Services (DSS) is shaking things up. There is a major movement occurring with the goal of providing more family-centered services, according to Jim Casserly, DSS’s new Foster Parent Liaison.
Jim started in his new role July 1, and I had the pleasure of joining him for coffee one morning in September. I was pleased to hear about several new efforts in place to help children and families across our great state. He has a clear focus on the task at hand: to hear the concerns and opinions of foster families, to resolve issues, to answer questions, and to try to effect change when necessary. “We want to add a personal touch,” Jim explained. “Serving as a resource to help foster families is a great thing.”
The Liaison office is not intended to bypass DSS case workers, licensing workers or supervisors, and foster parents should continue to give those staff members the opportunity to serve us first. However, if an issue continues unresolved, or if foster parents have questions that can’t be answered by those primary contacts, we are invited to reach out to Jim.
We also want to hear from foster parents who simply have a new idea for us to consider.
Despite hundreds of foster families having his direct line, Jim was relaxed, friendly and acted as if he had all the time in the world to chat with me. Not because I was interviewing him for this blog post, but because I’m a foster parent. And listening to foster parents – getting to know them on a personal basis – is his job. It’s a job he is good at, and one he takes seriously. Once I had asked all my interview questions, Jim offered me the chance to share any concerns I have related to fostering in general as well as any specific concerns about the child currently in my care, making me feel as though I was the only appointment on his calendar that day.
“Open communication is key,” Jim stated. Recognizing the importance of communication, DSS is holding Town Hall meetings in every county around the state. These meetings offer DSS the opportunity to share updates and, more importantly, the meetings give foster parents the opportunity to meet Jim and ask him questions face to face. DSS State Director Mike Leach also attends when his calendar allows, and a recorded a video message plays when he is absent.
Jim is not native to South Carolina, but you’d never know it by his dedication to helping children and families in this state. He grew up in Ohio and has lived in Lexington for the past few years with his wife Amy. Before accepting his current position, Jim served as a recruitment coordinator, and recruiting foster families continues to be an important aspect of his new role.
“The biggest challenge today is lack of enough foster homes,” he confirmed. “Our greatest need right now is families who are able to care for teenagers and sibling groups. Another need is for Spanish-speaking parents, since we’re seeing an increase in Spanish-only speaking children coming into care.” Jim recognizes that parents have a range of skills that can be useful while fostering, so he encourages us to inform our licensing workers if we are bilingual or have other skills that children in care may need.
“If parents who are interested in fostering could see these kids, not just read about them or hear generalizations but actually meet the kids, then more of them would sign up to become licensed,” Jim shared. “That’s a big challenge for us because we aren’t able to share pictures and specific stories about these kids due to privacy rules.” (Read more about kids currently in care.)
With focus and determination, skills he likely honed during his military career, Jim isn’t focused only on recruitment, but also on retention. “A big part of our mission is retention of current foster families,” he said. “And we know that foster families are our best resource for recruiting others to foster.” (Read more about the ripple effects of talking to others about fostering.)
To help with the goal of retention, DSS is creating the Foster Parent Advisory Council, which will include foster parent representation from each region around the state. They plan to publish a quarterly newsletter with the goal of information sharing on important topics such as upcoming legislation. “The Council will serve as an open conduit for foster families. There are a lot of moving pieces within the system,” he said, referring to foster care, kinship care, adoption and other aspects of child welfare. “It’s imperative that we get this right.”
Staff shortages cause frustrations for everyone involved, and case workers can’t effectively do their jobs when they face a case overload. Therefore, DSS has a new initiative in place to fill vacancies. DSS leaders are working hard to get the system where it needs to be, with all staff positions filled, appropriate training in place, and the right technology in use.
Jim shared information about another big change coming to our state next year: the Family First Preventive Services Act. Family First is federal legislation passed by Congress in 2018, and it will take effect in South Carolina in 2021. Among other things, this legislation allows federal funding for preventive services in three areas: substance abuse treatment, mental health treatment and in-home parenting skill development. It also allows federal funds to support kinship navigator programs. “Family First will turn foster care on its head,” Jim said. “It addresses prevention, so kids never have to enter the foster care system.”
I left the coffee shop feeling inspired and hopeful after speaking with Jim. It’s true that frustrations with the system are inevitable, along with court delays and the rollercoaster of emotions involved in fostering, but the bottom line is this: it’s an exciting time to become a foster family. Is there a particular concern slowing your decision to pursue a foster license? Contact your licensing agency, or contact Jim directly. He’s a busy man, but I guarantee he’ll find the time to listen.
Foster Parent Liaison and Recruitment
SC Department of Social Services
Office (803) 898-4174