An audit of the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services found that social workers continue to juggle caseloads that are too high, two years after lawmakers passed a measure limiting caseworker to an average of no more than 20 children each.

The department’s 1,800 case managers investigate allegations of child abuse and neglect, find foster homes for children in need, and work with youth who have been declared delinquent. Each case can involve multiple contacts with families, coordination with schools and community services, court dates, unexpected crises and lots of paperwork.Tennessee Department of Children's Services logo

The audit found that as many as 20 percent of caseworkers were responsible for more than 20 families — some carrying those high caseloads for months at a time: 252 case managers carried more than 20 cases each month for at least 6 months; 125 case managers carried more than 20 cases for a year.

“High caseloads may impact and even limit the best outcome,” the audit released by the Tennessee Comptroller concluded. High caseloads can lead to overburdened caseworkers who make mistakes and also lead to burnout and turnover among staff.

DCS officials noted the 2018 legislation required the department to have an average by region, not by individual. They have done that, said Doug Dimond, the department’s general counsel, who helped craft the law.

“We have process in place that satisfies legislative intent, which was to make sure that we had an average caseload of 20 case managers per child,” Dimond told lawmakers last week.

“You could do a hard case cap, but if you do that you’re going to have to fund us tremendously beyond what we are now or we’ll be lawbreakers from the moment you pass a hard cap,” Dimond said.  “You can’t ensure that every case manager, every day, will have 20 cases, period, with children coming overnight, exiting overnight, coming in again. It’s impossible to ensure that without tremendously over-resourcing case managers.”

Auditors noted that DCS measured their caseworkers average caseload by taking a one-day snapshot of case counts each month. That snapshot doesn’t provide the full picture, the audit noted. That includes hundreds of caseworkers who are consistently carrying more than 20 cases for months at a time — the very type of situation the legislation was meant to address.

“Averages require other information like standards of deviation and in the case of time how long the average has been in effect, so I suggest you consider changing your reporting,” said Sen. Kerry Roberts, R-Springfield.