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Foster parents warn of a crisis at the Department of Children's Services

One child had five DCS caseworkers in 18 months
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Posted at 10:42 AM, Mar 02, 2022

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Foster parents told NewsChannel 5 Investigates lawmakers need to address urgent problems inside the Department of Children's Services.

It follows concerns raised by DCS caseworkers who say they are overwhelmed by high caseloads brought on by constant turnover in the department.

Foster parents Jennifer Snook and Kelli Stidham say problems at DCS are impacting the state's most vulnerable children.

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Snook and her husband started taking foster kids on their large farm about two years ago. But she now believes the Department of Children Services is failing foster kids.

"I don't think enough people are aware of the things that are happening to kids in foster care," Snook said.

She said foster parents like her often can't get in touch with DCS caseworkers — who oversee kids' care and approve things like medications.

"You ask questions, and you get 'Well, that's the not the caseworker anymore.' OK, 'well who is the new caseworker? And when are they going to reach out to us?' And you reach out and you hear nothing," Snook said.

She blames the high number of caseworkers who have quit.

She said one of her foster kids had five different caseworkers in just 18 months.

"It means the caseworker has to learn their case all over again, that you have to explain everything that's happened with that child all over again," Snook said.

The caseworkers who stay get more and more cases piled on them.

"I have had a caseworker sit at my kitchen table and cry and that was really hard to see," Snook said.

DCS has 2,765 budgeted caseworker positions. At the end of January, 586 of those positions were unfilled.

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In a statement, DCS acknowledged it "is experiencing unprecedented turnover in case managers like most other state child welfare agencies — and all industries — across the country."

It said it has "acted with urgency to address turnover." But it is a "challenge to find qualified caseworkers."

DCS admitted 57 case managers had more than 50 cases at the end of January despite a law that says they should not average more than 20.

We recently found caseworkers with more than 80 cases.

Foster parent Kelli Stidham said basic things for the kids have fallen through the cracks.

"The kids are stressful enough. Then you have this on top of it. It's like I can't even get somebody on the phone sometimes," Stidham said.

Recently, she said she was not given authority to pick up a foster child from school.

"Well, that's a massive oversight. You need to be able to pick up the kid you're supposed to be in care of," Stidham said.

She said another child came into her home without their prescribed mental health medication.

Sometimes she's told the child does not even have a DCS case manager.

"This individual didn't have a case manager, so I didn't know who to go to. Who do I go to if there is no case manager to call?" Stidham asked.

The confusion is bad for foster parents — which DCS desperately needs.

Over the last three years, the number of people willing to foster has fallen.

There were 5,080 foster homes in 2020. It fell to 4,963 in 2021. By January of this year, it was down to 4,853 according to DCS.

The department said in its statement "in spite of the challenges more than 1,600 children and youth found their forever homes last year, more than ever before."

But Stidham says she often gets calls from DCS urging her to take a child for a short time because they have no other available home for them.

"I get multiple calls in a week," Stidham said.

She's been told a child will have to sleep on the floor of a DCS office if she doesn't take him.

"They say, 'I'm really trying to make it where this young person does not stay in the office overnight," Stidham said.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates obtained a video last summer of kids sleeping on the floor of a DCS office building because they had no other place to go.

Stidham said when she recently agreed to take a teenage girl — DCS did not warn her that the teen had a history of running.

"She ran away, and I found her getting into a van in the middle of the night, with strangers," Stidham said.

Stidham and Snook do not blame the overworked caseworkers.

"DCS needs help. The agency needs support," Snook said.

They are sounding the alarm about a foster care system they fear is falling apart around them.

"If lawmakers would pay attention to what is happening in our own back yard, maybe we could make a difference for the children," Snook said.

DCS said it has hired a full-time recruiter for case managers.

It said case managers have received two pay raises — totaling nearly 8% — in the past seven months.

Here is the full statement DCS sent for this report:

"Our case managers are the backbone of this department. Their jobs are difficult under the best of circumstances, but their dedication to helping children and families is unwavering. We continue to support our current employees while taking aggressive steps to recruit new case managers. Under this administration, our case managers have received two pay increases in the past seven months – a 4.25% salary increase on July 1 and a 3.58% salary market adjustment in December. These increases were in addition to the overall state employee raises and pay for performance bonuses. We are working to implement flexible work hours and shifts and help provide better work/life balance for our employees. And the department has hired a full-time recruiter and has plans for one to be assigned to each grand region to solely recruit new staff.

That said, the department is experiencing unprecedented turnover in case managers, like most other state child welfare agencies – and all industries – across the country. And many private providers, who deliver most of the services to children in state custody, have shared similar situations with employee turnover and with recruiting new foster parents. We know that a change in case managers can cause delays in children exiting custody – this is why the department has acted with urgency to address turnover. We are working hard to reduce the number of cases per case manager and as of February 14, there is a statewide custodial caseload average of 19.1 per case manager. However, it remains a challenge to find qualified workers in this current labor market to fill vacant positions. In spite of the challenges, more than 1,600 children and youth found their forever homes last year, more than ever before.

Finally, we value the thoughts and opinions of our foster parents and in 2021 started 'Foster Parents Journey,' an advisory group of foster parents across the state, from both DCS and private provider foster homes. This feedback and solution-focused guidance has been invaluable to DCS leadership and have already implemented 8 out of 10 suggestions that the group brought to the department in 2021. We look forward to the continued collaboration with our foster parents to help us better serve children and families."