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'We are going to demand better of ourselves' says DCS commissioner following audit

Margie Quin
Posted at 6:08 PM, Dec 14, 2022
and last updated 2022-12-14 19:25:44-05

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — The head of the troubled Department of Children's Services is promising reforms after a scathing state audit.

Margie Quin took over as Commissioner in September, but today she sat in front of lawmakers to respond to an audit that said DCS was in crisis.

"I think we all have to demand better because these are our children. These are Tennessee's kids. We are going to demand better of ourselves," Quin said.

The audit from the Tennessee Comptroller's office said DCS management had failed to come up with a plan to deal with massive caseworker vacancies and turnover.

It also showed pictures of where kids have slept on the floor in state office buildings and cans of food some DCS offices now keep to feed kids who cannot be placed in a foster home.

"We are attempting to get all children out of offices at this point," Quin told lawmakers.

But auditors with the Comptroller's office showed how hard it has been to place children.

The audit detailed how one caseworker called all 49 foster parents in one county trying to place a teenage boy.

But all 49 said they could not take the teen.

Some lawmakers challenged churches to help.

"This is a problem that's going to be solved by Tennesseans, and it's going to be solved because we all say how we can help," said State Senator Kerry Roberts, R-Springfield.

Commissioner Quin said some churches had already delivered hot meals to kids staying in office buildings.

But other lawmakers called on Gov. Bill Lee to spend some of the state's surplus money to fix the department.

"The community didn't cause this problem. The Governor can fix it and the legislature can fix it," said Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville.

Auditors highlighted a staffing crisis — there are nearly 500 open caseworker positions.

The audit reported that 97% of first-year caseworkers in 2021 left before finishing their first year on the job.

"We're hiring a lot of people. We're not keeping them, that's on us," Quin said.

She said a year ago the starting caseworker salary was $35,000 a year.

This month it rose to $43,000, but the commissioner said her budget request to Gov. Lee seeks to push starting salaries even higher.

"We are working to move as quickly as we possibly can. We have a lot of folks to hire. That's only going to happen as quickly as that's going to happen," Quin said.

Quin said she wants to cap caseloads at 10 for first-year caseworkers to keep them from being so overwhelmed when they start.

She said hiring caseworkers is the number one priority.

And she is also talking about privatizing caseworkers for two years in parts of the state where it is hardest to hire.