NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — After watching Department of Children's Services (DCS) caseworkers struggle to keep up with cases and with their mental health, local nonprofits placed "charging stations" around Nashville for state workers to recharge.
"I think that the workers are more hidden than the families that are struggling," explained Rebecca MacFarlane, Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) program director.
"Sometimes we get attention on different cases and different things that happen because it's a terrible story but there's a whole team behind every child that's trying to support that child trying to support that family," she said.
It is an issue that has persisted for decades but MacFarlane said the coronavirus pandemic cracked open flood gates and exposed the need for social worker support.
"We recognized early in 2021 and right after the first year the pandemic that a lot of people had not been seeing the kids that usually refer them to the juvenile court system for neglect and abuse and things. And we also saw an upturn in the severity of the cases that we were getting from juvenile court," MacFarlane explained.
The severity includes more sex trafficking, sexual abuse, and more children showing up to the hospital with severe injuries.
Darlene Vastano has been a CASA Volunteer Advocate for 21 years and served nearly 100 children in the Nashville area.
"Every case is different. Every case, you've got maybe one child, or maybe you have a sibling of five," said Vastano. "The emotional stress of some of these children, the traumas that they have been through, you experienced that right along with them, even though you didn't go through it yourself personally, but you are feeling what they're feeling."
Through her work as a CASA Volunteer Advocate, she partners with a DCS caseworker to visit the child and eventually speak for them in court.
"Without these people in their lives, they'll just stay in the system. They won't be going anywhere. They won't get permanent homes," said Vastano.
"It's emotional. It's stressful to try to help them heal from what they have gone through," explained Vastano who said the severity of the recent cases makes her volunteer job and the job of those employed by DCS even more straining.
A recent employee survey blasted current leadership at DCS because of high caseloads and what some employees called a "toxic environment."
MacFarlane said that was the push she needed to implement "charging stations" in Davidson County which is to be a safe space for DCS caseworkers and agency volunteers to rest, recharge and receive counseling of their own.
"We are asking our partners to develop ‘charging stations,’ so that those people that are serving these kids and who are going into these difficult situations have a place to really recuperate and so we don't have the loss of really good social workers who are in this for the right reasons and want to do the best for these kids," explained MacFarlane. "We want them to know that we've got their back, and that we support them and that we're here for them."
Family and Children's Service is one of three other nonprofits that joined CASA in making a "charging station."
"If someone wants to do this work for the long term, they have to have outlets like that, in order to continue this journey. No human person can do this type of work every single day and not have an outlet for release," stated Emily Nourse, Family and Children’s Service Child Welfare and Community Based Services senior director.
She explained her staff and other social workers, including DCS caseworkers, spent the height of the pandemic finding ways to "see" the kids in their cases creating drive-thru meetings, playing games through windows, and using Zoom meetings as best they could.
"We also are bound by confidentiality, so it's not like our staff can go home and talk to their family members and their partners about what they've seen," stated Nourse. "But, they can talk to their supervisor, they can sit in a room, they can have a cup of tea, they can do some mindfulness activities around breathing, coloring, all of those mindfulness activities are proven to calm the central nervous system and to help a person, alleviate the stress and anxiety that they've experienced."
MacFarlane said the doors are open to all. "Wherever a social worker or a service provider for a child is struggling, they can pop in, no questions asked," she said. "We don't take names. We don't worry about that. They can come and stay as long as they want. [It's] their space for them to work, to relax, to do what they need to do."
DCS admits they have a turnover issue as there were 495 case manager vacancies statewide as of October 19 which is nearly 20% of the department's case managers.
DCS declined to speak with NewsChannel 5 but provided the following statement:
"The Tennessee Department of Children's Services employs some 3,600 employees who help Tennessee families navigate challenging situations like abuse, neglect, and other child welfare issues. While the nature of this work is inherently difficult, DCS makes every effort to create both a healthy work environment and set high expectations for how the department serves Tennessee families.Like many other organizations across the country, including both public and private child welfare agencies, DCS is experiencing staff turnover and challenges with hiring. We are aggressively taking steps to retain our current staff.On July 1, we provided a 4.25% salary increase to case managers who have been with the department for more than one year. This was on top of the state employee salary increase they received.To help reduce caseloads in Davidson and the surrounding counties, we have also added contracted case managers from a private provider and have reassigned staff from our Central Office to assist in casework.We are exploring further strategies to retain and recruit staff, including flexible work hours/shifts, the ability to work remotely, recruitment opportunities with universities and colleges, and employing retirees to assist on a temporary contractual basis."
"I just want to thank the employees of the Department of Children's Services for their tireless work, they are amazing and strong, and wonderful advocates for the children," said Nourse. "Our children have experienced a whole lot of stressors during this time. Our staff and our volunteers, and other community members have been working tirelessly to try to serve children and to serve families despite, you know, how difficult things have been."
"We saw the support that people were giving nurses and health care workers and, for sure, they're on the front line of some really hard stuff and they're weary and they're tired, and we're seeing that, the less and less of them are wanting to do that work because it's so hard," explained MacFarlane. "And our view was that we don't want that to happen in the social work field too. So we need to do something now, and we of all people know what trauma does to the brain."
So far the "charging stations" are at CASA Nashville, Family and Children’s Services, The Family Safety Center and the Davidson County Juvenile Court.
CASA said they hope public spaces like the local libraries will also add "charging stations" to help DCS workers no matter where in the city they might be for house visits.
If you want to donate to the charging stations or set up one at your own business or agency, contact Rebecca at CASA at firstname.lastname@example.org. To apply to work as a DCS case worker, click here.