NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — A retired caseworker from the Department of Children's Services is concerned rising caseloads and vacancies in the department are putting children at risk.
Lynn Eggers-Bentley spent her career helping children in state custody in Tennessee and Kentucky.
She retired from DCS in September after working cases in East Tennessee, and she spoke to NewsChannel 5 Investigates because she is worried children in state care are falling through the cracks.
"To come forward gives me a chance to speak first for the children and families that I served, but really it also gives me a chance to speak for that front-line worker that people just brush aside," Eggers-Bentley said.
She says DCS caseworkers are more and more overwhelmed by rising caseloads brought on by the drug crisis and the state needs to provide more resources.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "Do you feel like kids are getting checked on (by DCS staff) as much as they need to be?"
Eggers-Bentley responded, "I think it's as much as they can do, maybe not as much as they need to. There's not enough manpower."
Caseworkers are required to visit children at least once a month, but that didn't happen in the tragic case of little Zephaniah Green.
Pictures show the deplorable conditions inside the home where DCS placed the two year old, as well as his brother and sister last year.
As we first reported, the DCS caseworker was warned not to put them there, but she did anyway.
The day Zephaniah died, investigators found dirty dishes piled high, unusable bathrooms even drug paraphernalia.
DCS's own investigation found the caseworker who placed Green in the home never checked on him during the four months he was there.
The caseworker told DCS it was too far to drive.
The caseworker and her manager are no longer with the Department.
The head of the Tennessee State Employees Association (TSEA), Randy Stamps, said there was no excuse for the failures in Zephaniah's case.
But he said it points to what is at stake.
"We're talking about children's lives. We're talking about families and the preservation of the family," Stamps said.
He said some DCS employees have told him they have as many as 50 cases and each case can have more than one child.
"It's highly disturbing because it just doesn't give them time to go back and investigate and to review what is going on with the children," Stamps said.
Last year State Senator Joey Hensley (R) Hohenwald, sponsored a bill that would have put a hard cap on the number of cases each DCS worker could have.
It would have limited cases to no more than 20 per worker.
"So many children are in terrible situations and the state is obligated to check on them to protect the children," Hensley said.
But in a last minute compromise the bill changed.
DCS agreed workers would not average more than 20 cases at a time.
"They assured us they would keep an average of 20 per worker. But we've seen over the last year that's not happening in a lot of regions," Senator Hensley said.
Hensley claims the state included administrators in the average which DCS has denied.
DCS said currently caseworkers average about 17 cases each.
But Senator Hensley said in the past year he has spoken to workers with up to 30 cases.
DCS said in a statement it is not always possible to for an individual case manager to stay at 20 cases or below because children can unexpectedly come into state custody.
According to data for April, DCS said 21% of its workers had caseloads above 20.
DCS said 73 staff had caseloads in 30s, 26 staff had caseloads in 40s and 3 had caseloads in 50s.
The workers who have more than 50 cases are not dealing with foster care/custodial cases, according to the DCS statement.
New DCS Commissioner Jennifer Nichols has scheduled meetings with DCS staff across the state this summer and she says she would like to lower caseloads according to the DCS statement.
Senator Hensley estimated the state would have to hire an additional 500 caseworkers at a cost of at least $5 million to put a hard cap on caseloads.
He and the Tennessee State Employees Association have agreed to wait one more year to see if the new DCS commissioner can lower caseloads before running the bill next year.
But part of the problem may be finding qualified people willing to take a job as a case manager.
Currently DCS has nearly 120 caseworker positions unfilled.
"The younger worker does not have a clue what they are getting into," Eggers-Bentley said.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates said, "You love this job."
Eggers-Bentley responded, "Yes."
NewsChannel 5 Investigates said "And the children you help."
Eggers-Bentley said "But I would not let one of my family, my grandchildren go into this field at this point."
She said the high caseloads and low pay lead to many workers quitting and it is time for the state to act.
"If they don't invest the money one way or another we're going to be overrun with these children," Eggers-Bentley said.
"We're not meeting the need. And there's no worker if they were honest with you that's been doing this for a while that wouldn't tell you that they're just overwhelmed and give out. They're just exhausted," Eggers-Bentley said.
DCS said the starting salary for a case manager is $2,691 per month - just over $32,000 a year.
Statement from Tennessee State Employees Association:
After several weeks of working with legislators, an agreement was reached to address the caseload issue for all DCS employees. In a show of good faith, all parties agreed to allow DCS Commissioner Jennifer Nichols to meet with front line staff over the next few months to hear caseload concerns directly from employees.
"During the first few weeks of Legislative Session it became clear to me that Commissioner Jennifer Nichols has a heart for the children she serves in DCS," TSEA Executive Director Randy Stamps said. "She recognizes the many challenges and opportunities the department faces. It is evident to TSEA that she wants to listen to the concerns of all employees in the department to address the issues regarding caseloads and provide quality services to the children and families that DCS serves. Thanks to the tremendous support of many legislators, I am convinced we will see the needed changes in the weeks ahead."
Information from e-mail sent by DCS:
Commissioner Nichols has scheduled meetings with DCS staff across the state this summer. The purpose of these meetings is to hear concerns about caseload numbers or anything else the employees may want to share with her.
“It is vitally important for me to meet, discuss, listen to and thank the employees of Tennessee’s Department of Children’s Services and I am very much looking forward to it. In addition to listening to caseload concerns, I want to talk about our goals and the progress we can make. I want to know their opinions about recruiting exceptional new employees and reducing turnover. The bottom line, I want to know what we can do within DCS to ensure that the children we serve are safe, healthy and on their way to a bright future,’’ Commissioner Nichols said.
By law, DCS is mandated to keep the caseloads of all caseworkers within each of our twelve regions at or below an average of 20 cases per case manager.
Commissioner Nichols said: “We do keep our regional averages below 20 cases. However, I believe a smaller caseload would positively impact the time, services and quality work our staff devotes to the children and families. Obviously, that is good for staff and for the children and families we serve.”
It isn’t always possible for an individual case manager to stay at, or below, 20 cases. After all, DCS serves children who unexpectedly come into state custody and/or need services from the department.
This data is for April 2019:
· Statewide average caseload as of April 15: 16.7 cases
· There were 1,578 caseload carrying personnel (Case Manager 1-3) in program areas that carry family cases: Child Protective Services Assessments & Investigations & Special Investigations, Juvenile Justice, Family Support Services, Family Crisis Intervention, and Social Services.
· Of the 1,578, 334 had caseloads above 20 (21%).
· Of those 334 caseworkers:
o 6.5% had 30 or more cases.
o .06% of caseworkers had above 40 cases.
o The large majority of DCS caseworkers have case ranges at 20 or below (79%) with over 90% of workers having less than 30 cases.
· These numbers do not include administrators for averages. The Caseload Averages only include Case Manager 1-3 personnel and do not include non-caseload program areas or non-caseload personnel.
· No regional average at this point is above 20.
· DCS tracks this information monthly.
There are three staff of 1,578 who have caseloads in the 50s (51 to 54 cases). The majority of these cases are they are non-custodial child protective services cases not foster care/custodial cases.
· 73 staff have caseloads in the 30s
· 26 staff have caseloads in the 40s
· 3 staff have caseloads in the 50s
That is a total of 102 staff 1,578 who has 30 or more cases. Overall, however, 79% of workers have case ranges 20 or below.