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'This terrifies me,' says lawmaker reviewing data from DCS whistleblower

DCS Caseloads 3.jpg
Posted at 6:20 PM, Oct 06, 2021
and last updated 2022-04-04 16:05:04-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Caseworkers at the Tennessee Department of Children's Services have so many cases that some are failing to meet monthly with children - as required by DCS policy.

A whistleblower provided data to NewsChannel 5 Investigates which shows a trend one lawmaker calls terrifying.

The documents show shockingly high caseloads for caseworkers in Davidson County's Child Protective Services division which investigates allegations of abuse and neglect.

They also reveal a trend in which many caseworkers are not meeting monthly with children or not entering data about those meetings into the system.

DCS called the data a snapshot in time and said it is part of an internal management tool designed to help supervisors prioritize their tasks.

Screenshots from a DCS database in September showed some caseworkers in Davidson County with more than 80 cases.

Each case can include more than one child.

Earlier this week, we found two caseworkers with 98 cases.

That is nearly five times higher than the average monthly caseload allowed by state law.

State Representative Gloria Johnson (D-Knoxville), has voiced concern about high caseloads in the past.

"If you give somebody an impossible amount of work, no one can complete it," Johnson said.

But even she was surprised by the internal graphs we showed her.

The graphs track required monthly meetings with potential victims of abuse and neglect in Davidson County called face-to-face contacts.

A face-to-face contact could include a Zoom meeting because of COVID-19.

In June, 34% of open cases were marked as "Not Found" — meaning no caseworker visited or information about that visit was not entered into the system.

In July, 41% of open cases were listed as "Not Found."

And in August it rose to 46.9% — nearly half of all open cases.

DCS said the reports show a "single point in time" and the numbers can change as workers enter more data.

Meetings should be entered within 30 days.

"Those face-to-face contacts, that's how they find out how the kids are doing. Are they OK? Are things going well?" Johnson said.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Johnson, "What do you think when you see those numbers?"

"This terrifies me," Johnson said.

The tragic case of 2-year-old Zephania Green shows why regular visits are critical.

As we first reported in 2019, DCS placed Zephania inside a home outside Davidson County despite warnings the home was not safe.

Four months later Zephania died.

Investigators took pictures of the deplorable conditions inside the home where she died.

They showed dirty dishes piled high in the kitchen, unusable bathrooms and bedrooms, and drug paraphernalia.

His caregiver said she fell asleep with Zephania in a recliner, when she woke up, the 2-year-old was blue and unresponsive.

No charges were filed, but DCS's own investigation revealed the caseworker who put Zephania in the home never visited - during the four months he was there.

She told DCS it was too far to drive.

That caseworker was later fired.

State Senator Heidi Campbell (D-Nashville), said as caseloads get higher, the children are in more danger.

"It's always been bad. It's always been a problem, but through this pandemic, it has gotten much, much worse," Campbell said.

She was alarmed by the number of children not being seen in the Davidson County Child Protective Services reports.

"What happens is the children suffer and we see here where the children are not even getting seen," Campbell said.

"We need to overhaul this system. We need to take a hard look at why it's not working," Campbell said.

Senator Campbell sent a letter to Gov. Bill Lee last month which stated the situation at DCS is "deteriorating."

She cited an employee survey that blasted current DCS leadership as one reason workers are leaving.

In response to questions from NewsChannel 5 Investigates, DCS sent a statement saying it "is experiencing staff turnover and challenges with hiring."

DCS stated "we are aggressively taking steps to retain our current staff" including a recent pay raise of more than 4% for case managers.

In Davidson and surrounding counties, DCS said it has contracted with a private provider to help with caseloads.

Lawmakers say the high caseloads and lack of regular visits show the urgent need for reforms at DCS.

Here is more of DCS's initial statement:

"The reports you have are from Safe Measures, a management tool that pulls data from TFACTS, the department’s case management system. Safe Measures is a dashboard to help case managers and their supervisors prioritize their daily and weekly tasks. The Safe Measure reports show a single point in time. It is not a full report of the number of face-to-face visits made by case managers as captures both documentation already entered and data yet to be entered. Case managers can see what work has been done, and what work remains to be done so that they may plan accordingly. The Safe Measures report changes every day as new data is entered by case managers."

For example, the month of August 2021 (last month) shows 46.9% of kids were "Not Found"

In the Safe Measures report, this means the data was not found – meaning not yet entered – in the system, not that the visit had not occurred, or the child was not found.

"Like many other organizations across the country, including both public and private child welfare agencies, DCS is experiencing staff turnover and challenges with hiring. We are aggressively taking steps to retain our current staff. As you know, On July 1, case managers who have been with the department for more than one year received a 4.25% salary increase. This was on top of salary increase for all state employees. To help reduce caseloads in Davidson and the surrounding counites, we have also added contracted case managers from a private provider. We are also exploring further strategies to retain and recruit staff including flexible work hours/shifts, the ability to work remotely, recruitment opportunities with universities and colleges, and employing retirees to assist on a temporary contractual basis."

Late Wednesday, the department provided information about visits to a separate groups of kids - who are in state custody - and said caseworker meetings with that group are meeting or exceeding federal goals.

DCS provides information about face-to-face meetings with all children in state custody to the federal government - the Children's Bureau.

DCS also released a new statement on Wednesday:

The Children’s Bureau set a specific goal for the department to make at least one face-to-face visit per month with 95% of children in state custody. It also set a goal of conducting 50% of those visits in the child’s placement (at the foster home or residential treatment facility). The Davidson region exceeds both goals and fell just short of the goal for overall face-to-face visits in February 2021.

The Children’s Bureau does NOT require face-to-face visits for children who are NOT in state custody receiving services. DCS does, however, provide services to children who are NOT in state custody and their families. The data you see in the screenshots you have from the Safe Measures tool show, at that moment in time, the number of face-to-face visits with children who are NOT in state custody and their families who are receiving services from the department. Again, the department is not required to conduct or track visits with non-custodial youth; we use the Safe Measures tool to help our non-custodial case managers manage their work.