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Hundreds of caseworker vacancies create 'crisis' at DCS

Foster mom has no birth certificate for 10-month-old
Posted at 11:58 AM, Jul 18, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-18 19:22:32-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Foster parents across Tennessee are pushing for changes at the Department of Children's Services claiming unfilled caseworker positions are hurting children.

More than half of the foster care caseworker positions in Davidson County are vacant according to DCS.

There are 600 unfilled caseworker positions statewide.

A growing number of foster parents are advocaating for better pay and a better working environment for caseworkers, and they say DCS is in crisis.

DCS has said turnover is a problem in workplaces across the country and insists it is addressing the problem.

But in Davidson County alone, 59 of 117 budgeted foster care caseworker positions were unfilled as of late June.

Foster parent Dana Smith said the caseworker who worked with her quit last month.

"She was crying, so I know she didn't do this lightly," Smith said "She said, 'I just want to let you know I'm resigning, I'm giving notice.' And honestly, from what I've heard about turnover I just told her I'm surprised you lasted this long."

Smith is fostering a 10-month-old that DCS placed in her home right after he was born.

"This child in my home, I just love him to death. He gives me purpose. He is my little buddy," Smith said.

But it has not been easy.

"I'm taking care of a child that I don't know his name. There is no birth certificate, no social security card, nothing," Smith said.

The baby's biological mother did not fill out any paperwork when the baby was born.

Smith said his lack of a legal name and social security card have made getting things like health care even harder.

She said when her caseworker quit, she could not even get in touch with the caseworker's supervisor. She said her resigning caseworker warned her the Davidson County foster care office was dramatically understaffed.

"This isn't a sinking ship. The ship has already sunk, and we are on a rescue mission at this point," Smith said.

DCS has 2,765 budgeted caseworker positions in Tennessee, and as of late June, 600 of those positions were unfilled, according to the department.

"It's not a matter of recruiting staff at this point. It's a matter of retaining staff, and if you can't retain staff, you're just going to be starting over," Smith said.

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

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

The department said it "recently" held a job fair in Memphis and hired 32 caseworkers.

It is having a job fair in Nashville on Thursday, July 28, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at 200 Athens Way.

When caseworkers quit it means higher caseloads for those who stay behind and more problems for foster parents like Smith.

"I really want to advocate for the caseworkers because they have such a vital role in the system," Smith said.

That's why Smith is speaking out. She wants higher pay for caseworkers and better working conditions.

DCS has said caseworkers have received raises totaling nearly 8% in the last year.

But Smith said the massive vacancies prove the pay raises are not enough - or that something else is wrong.

In the end, she said it's the kids that suffer.

"I want to help, and I don't want these kids to fall through the cracks," Smith said.

Smith said she finally got a new caseworker late last week who she is happy with and who is working hard.

She hopes if enough foster parents speak out that pay and the environment for caseworkers will improve.