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Internal DCS emails detail unsafe sleeping conditions, toilet paper rationing for kids

Employees told to limit toilet paper to "3-4 sheets" for kids in offices
Posted at 10:28 AM, Feb 23, 2023
and last updated 2023-02-23 21:24:01-05

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF-TV) — Internal communications from the Tennessee Department of Children's Services show an increasingly desperate situation for kids staying in offices and the employees forced to take extra shifts to watch them.

Emails and memos from DCS supervisors reveal assaults, unsafe sleeping conditions, and even toilet paper rationing to prevent children from intentionally clogging toilets and flooding office bathrooms.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates obtained communications from the East Tennessee Region which covers eight counties.

This month caseworkers were told "moving forward" to limit the amount of toilet paper they give to children to just "3-4 sheets" because of a "boys flooded bathroom."

Emails show caseworkers must sign up for multiple shifts each month to watch children in offices including overnights and weekends.

A recently released "Sitting Handbook" detailed responsibilities for caseworkers who must watch kids.

It included "check on children every 15 minutes while sleeping," and making sure they shower "no less than 3 times a week."

It had requirements on how to "transport youth to the shower location."

We showed the communications to Representative Gloria Johnson (D) Knoxville.

"It's just unbelievable what people are being asked to do," Johnson said.

One email seemed to scold caseworkers "who are questioning every step taken."

A manager wrote, "We are seeing increased issues from staff giving pushback."

The email continued "There are 1000 things going on behind the scenes to try and keep things afloat," and the questioning "has to stop."

"They're being told to shut up and do it," Johnson said.

A DCS spokesperson did not dispute the communications and said in a statement, "Our teams are working hard, in difficult circumstances. Under Commissioner Quin's leadership, all regional offices now operate under the same guidance and handbooks. All documents and handbooks not approved by the Department's Central Office have been removed from circulation."

Police reports detail how traumatized children have sometimes attacked employees watching them.

In mid-December, Clinton, Tennessee Police responded to the Regional DCS office in Anderson County after a 12-year-old boy started "attacking employees."

The 12-year-old had been removed from an unsafe home.

He had developmental delays and DCS had trouble finding a foster home for him.

He slept at the regional DCS office until the incident occurred.

In October, DCS workers in Clinton called police because a 17-year-old girl refused "to stay in a room "and ran around the office."

Other police reports show juveniles running away from the same office, including one who threatened to "kill herself because she was in DCS custody."

In December, DCS Commissioner Margie Quin told lawmakers that caseworkers should not have to pull double duty watching kids in offices on top of their normal caseloads.

"They are not hired to sit at night and on weekends," Quin said.

She told lawmakers it is one reason so many caseworkers quit, and turnover has been so high.

"We're hiring a lot of people, we're just not keeping them," Quin said.

But in December she indicated things were getting better.

"We are attempting to get all children out of offices at this point," Quin said on December 14.

But a January 11 email to workers in the East Tennessee Region said the "need for a second location continues."

Another email shows "there are five sitting shifts per day," but the numbers can change based on need.

It also stated, "New hires must sign up."

That concerned Representative Johnson.

"These new folks are coming in and they are not seeing any changes. They are not seeing this stopping, and they're looking elsewhere," Johnson said.

Last month DCS transferred kids from the Clinton office to a building in Oak Ridge.

But the state fire marshal stopped kids from spending the night at the Oak Ridge office.

An inspection report from February 1, found that none of the six rooms used for keeping kids had a fire alarm or "a door directly to the outside or a window for rescue."

It also stated that two of the rooms, where kids stayed, had "a table but no bed."

After that report, DCS moved kids to two other locations in the region.

But that meant adding a "4th person to each shift so that we can have 2 per location."

Johnson said this is an ongoing tragedy for the kids, the employees, and for our state.

"It's absolutely hard for me to believe this is the best we can do," Johnson said.

The full statement from DCS is below:

Since joining the Department, Commissioner Quin has taken significant steps toward reducing caseload numbers for our case manager teams. Since January 1, 2023, we have hired 128 new case managers who are in training. During their first year they will be limited to a caseload of 10, to allow them sufficient time to learn and train. In February 2023 all case managers received salary increases, and the salary ranges for case managers were also significantly increased.

As you know, Governor Lee’s proposed budget recommends record investments to the sum of $190 million dollars in additional resources to support the DCS mission, providing for the safety and well-being of Tennessee children. 

Concurrent with our ongoing efforts to recruit and retain case managers, DCS continues to serve a high volume of Tennessee children and families in need. Veteran case managers work hard to meet this growing need by temporarily carrying additional cases as new staff are hired, trained and integrated into the DCS team.

Our teams are working hard, in difficult circumstances. Under Commissioner Quin’s leadership, all regional offices now operate under the same guidance and handbooks. All documents and handbooks not approved by the Department’s Central Office have been removed from circulation. All issues brought to our attention that are not in keeping with approved Department policy are remedied and re-aligned with our mission and goals.