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Caseworker vacancies and low employee morale marked DCS commissioner's tenure

Gov. Lee replaces Commissioner Nichols
Jennifer Nichols.jpg
Posted at 4:13 PM, Jul 22, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-22 21:05:36-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Jennifer Nichols was best known for being the special prosecutor in the Holly Bobo case.

She spent 20 years as a prosecutor in Shelby County before Gov. Bill Lee picked her to lead the Department of Children's Services in 2019.

She was quickly faced with leading the department through the pandemic.

During that time a leaked employee survey showed many employees concerned about workers quitting, rising caseloads and a "toxic work environment."

"We're not being able to cover all the bases with these kids because they are understaffed," said Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville.

Last summer, a caseworker leaked video of children sleeping on the floor of a DCS office building in Nashville.

It was first reported by the Tennessee Lookout and then picked up by media across the state.

The kids had been removed from their homes because it was unsafe, but DCS had no foster home for them.

Former caseworker Terri Nelson spoke exclusively to NewsChannel 5 Investigates, and said she released the video because people needed to know what was happening.

"They're sleeping on the floor. They don't even have blankets. That's demeaning. We just told them they don't matter," Nelson said.

Nelson was fired by the department after releasing the video.

"I definitely thought it would, it could put a target on my back," Nelson said.

NewsChannel 5's ongoing investigation recently found more than 40 kids ran away from the downtown DCS office building in the last year.

Many were there because DCS had no immediate foster home to put them in.

After that report, some state lawmakers said they were losing confidence in Nichols.

"I don't know how anyone could have full confidence in the department or the commissioner right now," Sen. Yarbro said in April after NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "Does the DCS Commissioner have your full confidence?"

Just last week NewsChannel 5 Investigates reported the department had 600 caseworker vacancies.

The number of families willing to foster has also steadily fallen.

Attorney David Raybin said discussions are underway about a class action lawsuit against the state to make it improve DCS.

"There are ongoing discussions about taking actions to remedy the current crisis," Raybin said in April.

He was one of the lawyers who sued the state back in 2000 — claiming it was not taking care of foster kids.

That class action lawsuit, called Brian A., was named after a 9-year-old in the foster care system.

Raybin said there have been recent talks about bringing a new lawsuit against the state.

"Because the kids are so powerless, they have no constituency. They have no voice, and we are their voice and we are going to speak up again unless the state steps up and does this," Raybin said.