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'We are always short-staffed.' DCS employees warn high caseloads are hurting kids

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Posted at 9:46 PM, Aug 04, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-04 23:42:16-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — High caseloads and a shortage of workers are putting Tennesse's most vulnerable children at risk. That is the message from employees inside the Department of Children's Services.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates reviewed hundreds of employee comments from a survey employees took in the spring.

Two state lawmakers say the comments are a cry for help and demonstrate the desperate need for more funding at DCS.

The employees' written comments paint a picture of what is happening inside the department.

"We are always short-staffed," one employee wrote.

Another wrote "The amount of cases placed on the supervisor and case manager are extremely unreasonable," and "This where mistakes are made lack of staff."

State Senator Heidi Campbell (D) Nashville and Representative Gloria Johnson (D) Knoxville, obtained the employee comments from DCS.

They requested them after hearing from workers concerned they would be fired if they spoke out publicly.

"You get the sense when you read through this that these people are really asking for help," Senator Campbell said.

"Our kids, the most vulnerable kids in Tennessee, are not getting the things they need," Representative Johnson said.

Concern over rising caseloads took center stage in recent years as the Opioid epidemic tore apart families. The survey reveals growing problems.

"The stress on staff is very high and COVID has made it worse," one employee wrote.

Employee comments showed employees with 40 or 50 cases. Some cases involve more than one child and workers must visit each child at least once a month.

"We're not being able to cover all the bases with these kids because they are understaffed," Representative Johnson said.

In 2018, a bi-partisan bill would have capped the number of cases for each worker at 20 per month. But a last-minute compromise changed the bill to say workers could not average more than 20 cases a month.

NewsChannel5 Investigates asked, "When it says an average of 20 cases is that getting the job done?

Representative Johnson responded, "It's not getting the job done. And I'm questioning if those averages are really 20 quite frankly."

DCS sent a statement saying it tries to have a "healthy work environment and set high expectations for how the department serves Tennessee families."

In response to our questions, the department said 41 case managers had more than 40 cases last month -- and 19 workers had more than 50 cases.

"We are sitting on a billion-dollar surplus in this state, and we are not funding our DCS program and our kids are suffering for it," Senator Campbell said.

Johnson and Campbell say they will sponsor a bill to cap cases at 12 per month. They say it's time to put money into hiring at DCS.

A big problem is finding qualified people to take these jobs. Currently, DCS has more than 380 caseworker vacancies - despite a recent salary increase of more than 4 percent.

Lawmakers say the worker comments show Tennessee children are not getting the help they desperately need.

Full DCS Statement:
"The Tennessee Department of Children's Services employs some 3,600 employees who help Tennessee families navigate challenging situations like abuse, neglect, and other child welfare issues. While the nature of this work is inherently difficult, DCS makes every effort to create both a healthy work environment and set high expectations for how the department serves Tennessee families."