MANSFIELD -- The announcement Tuesday regarding the new executive director of Richland County Children Services is a story of retention and success.
Nikki Harless began her career at RCCS as an intern in 1992 while attending The Ohio State University at Mansfield.
"I was just so fascinated with what caseworkers do, going into homes and engaging with others," Harless said. "Just seeing how people live having barely anything, having health issues, but having smiles on their faces. They are loving their children and doing the best they can.
"I felt like I wanted to help and do better," said Harless, who has been the interim executive director of the agency at 731 Scholl Road for the last six months.
Harless received a three-year contract from the Richland County Children Services board at an annual salary of $110,000.
Harless oversees 96 employees and an annual budget of more than $11 million. As executive director, Harless is tasked to serve as a collaborative leader and champion for families across Richland County.
The board appointed Harless the the interim executive director in July 2019 after the resignation of former Executive Director Patty Harrelson.
Harless was also an interim director in 2012, but did not apply to be executive director. She has worked as the agency's assistant director.
Harless earned a bachelor's degree in social work from OSU and was hired by RCCS as a full-time ongoing caseworker assigned to after-hours. Harless then worked in the screening department from 2000 to 2002 and was promoted to a supervisory role in October of 2003, serving as first the school-based team supervisor and then placement supervisor.
In 2006, Harless became the program manager over the intake and ongoing departments. In 2007, she earned a master's degree in social work with an LISW-S designation. Her experience and knowledge led to her selection as director of operations and then assistant director.
Harless said one of the most prominent concerns she is looking to correct is employee turnover in the agency.
"(Caseworking is) a really hard job," she said Tuesday. "We've lost 22 jobs out of 104 in the past year. I want to focus on recruiting and keeping staff members.
"We're really working hard to keep our staff and we're doing a lot of things to keep them. They got 4-percent (pay) raises this year and the board has brought back the tuition reimbursement program."
Jim Kilig, chairman of the board for RCCS, said the new director stood out from the 14 initial candidates for the job.
Deanna West-Torrence, chairmen of the search committee, said staff members wanted a leader who understands the day-in and day-out expectations of the job.
"We also had a focus group with peers and school superintendents in the community to help us understand what they wanted to see for the position," West-Torrence said.
The board sees the promotion of Harless, a Clear Fork High School graduate and Butler native, as a retention story.
"For her to start here, as an intern and through hard work and dedication she became the director of this agency," said Kulig, "Talk about retention. That's a retention message."