Workers describe “unmanageable” caseloads, high turnover and low morale at Department of Children’s Services

By: - August 6, 2021 5:03 am
In grainy still photos cropped from video sent to the Tennessee Lookout by staff at the Tennessee Department of Children's Service, a teen sleeps on the bare floor while another lies on an air mattress with no blanket. (Photo: submitted)

In grainy still photos cropped from video obtained by the Tennessee Lookout, children in state custody sleep on the floor of a state office building. One teen sleeps on the bare floor while another lies on an air mattress with no blanket. The children were in the custody of the Department of Children’s Services (Photo: submitted)

Caseloads are too high, turnover is constant and morale has reached new lows, a March survey of workers responsible for protecting Tennessee children from abuse and neglect revealed.

The internal Department of Children’s survey obtained by Sen. Heidi Campbell, D-Nashville, and Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville — released to reporters Thursday — included scores of comments from 1,900 DCS workers about working conditions.

Caseworkers wrote they had unmanageable caseloads impacting their ability to adequately do their jobs and some complained that their bosses focused more on internal benchmarks than taking the time needed to provide services to kids and families in crisis.

“As a whole we do not care about safety [of] our employees or the children we serve. We only care that we close cases in a timely fashion and look good on paper,” read one comment. “We are averaging 40-50 open CPS (child protective services) investigations at a time,” read another. “Never in my life have I experienced such a harsh and negative environment which causes unnecessary psychological harm to youth and staff.”

“These folks are working in a toxic culture, asked to do the impossible and what that is doing is having an effect on our kids,” Johnson said. “We hear so often they’re encouraged to close cases before they’re ready to be closed.”

The lawmakers said they will be seeking legislative action to impost a hard cap on the number of cases for which each worker is responsible, citing a 12-case limit that other states have imposed.

As of July 15, the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services had 382 vacancies for caseworkers. Current turnover among all DCS workers is 20% and among to caseworkers is 22%.

“DCS keeps promising to address these issues and the legislature keeps taking them at their word and they keep not delivering,” Campbell said. “We can’t keep kicking the can down the road, especially when kids lives are in danger. It’s past time for us to actually do something about this and inevitably Gov. Lee’s administration and the legislature have a responsibility to turn this organization around.”

The department is responsible for intervening in cases of child abuse or neglect, operating the state’s foster care system, facilitating adoptions and also running Tennessee’s juvenile justice system. At any one time, the department has about 9,000 children in state custody.

DCS workers said they lack the staff to do this work adequately.

Data obtained from the department support some of these complaints. As of July 15, DCS had 382 vacancies for caseworkers, according to Jennifer Donnals, the agency’s chief of staff. Turnover among DCS workers is 20%. Among caseworkers, turnover is 22%.

While 70% of caseworkers have 20 or fewer cases at one time, 19 caseworkers are carrying 50 or more cases; 41 caseworkers carry 40 or more cases and 53 DCS caseworkers have 30 or more at any given time, DCS data shows.

DCS “employs some 3,600 employees who help Tennessee families navigate challenging situations like abuse, neglect, and other child welfare issues,” a DCS statement said. “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.”

In recent weeks, DCS has come under scrutiny for putting children taken into custody in offices overnight to sleep on floors. The Lookout published video of children sleeping in the downtown Davy Crocket office building, some without mattresses, pads, pillows or blankets. Rep. Vincent Dixie, D-Nashville, has called for a legislative investigation.

Department of Children’s Services Commissioner Jennifer Nichols also came under criticism when a Chattanooga-based facility that housed migrant children sued the agency after its license was suspended after two reports of sexual abuse. The facility had come under fire from Gov. Bill Lee and Republican lawmakers who said they were blindsided that migrant children were being housed in the state.

We close cases on kids that we could do more for, provide more support. We want to help these kids. We want to give them a chance at a good life, not coming home and seeing one parent beat up the other. But DCS just comes in one day, and then they leave.

– Supervisor, Tennessee Department of Children's Services

A longtime child protective services supervisor, who asked for anonymity out of fear of being fired for speaking out, told the Lookout on Thursday that workers — already overwhelmed by the number of children they are responsible for — are dreading the start of school, when reports of abuse and neglect typically rise from teachers and school administrators.

“They’re so nervous that school is just starting again,” the supervisor said. “There’s so much work required per case. And we’re being pressured, without them saying ‘close cases’ that’s what they want.”

“We need to spend time with kids to get them to trust us. But if you have 20 cases — and that should be the critical mass in my opinion, but that’s expected — that means you might have two kids per case. Those 40 cases have to be seen face to face each month, in addition to all the other work you have – court, paperwork, there’s just so much that goes into one case. So we close cases on kids that we could do more for, provide more support. It weighs on case managers. We want to help these kids. We want to give them  a chance at a good life, not coming home and seeing one parent beat up the other. But DCS just comes in one day, and then they leave.”



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Anita Wadhwani
Anita Wadhwani

Anita Wadhwani is a senior reporter for the Tennessee Lookout. The Tennessee AP Broadcasters and Media (TAPME) named her Journalist of the Year in 2019 as well as giving her the Malcolm Law Award for Investigative Journalism. Wadhwani is formerly an investigative reporter with The Tennessean who focused on the impact of public policies on the people and places across Tennessee.