DCS social worker caseload bill fails to pass at end of session

By: - May 2, 2023 6:01 am
Margie Quin, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Children's Services, photographed in March at the Cordell Hull Legislative Office Building by John Partipilo.

Margie Quin, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services, photographed in March at the Cordell Hull Legislative Office Building by John Partipilo.

The Tennessee Legislature approved $183 million in new funding to bolster the Department of Children’s Services this session, but a bill designed to reduce the caseload for social workers slipped through the cracks in the waning days, leaving some lawmakers worried that the agency will continue to struggle to place foster children.

The measure sponsored by Sen. Ferrell Haile, R-Gallatin, and Rep. Tom Leatherwood, R-Arlington, would have put a “hard cap” of 20 on the number of cases the department’s social workers can take and then dropped that number to 18.

Lawmakers who believe dramatic changes are necessary say some DCS social workers have caseloads far exceeding 20, which caused the department to hit a crisis point over the last two years with some children in the state’s custody forced to stay in Tennessee offices rather than homes. A DCS spokesperson says that hasn’t been the case since March.

Yet in spite of Gov. Bill Lee’s efforts to make sure foster children and others in state custody have a decent home to live in, the bill to reduce caseloads couldn’t gain the traction necessary to pass before the end of the session April 21.

A measure to cap Department of Children’s Services caseworker loads at 20 each failed in the waning days of legislative session, which DCS officials and bill sponsors attribute to confusion over the fiscal note.

Leatherwood was surprised at the bill’s fate when told in the final days of the House finance subcommittee that it wasn’t expected to pass in the Senate and, thus, wouldn’t be considered for approval and sent to the floor for a vote.

Noting it remains alive for 2024, Leatherwood contends the bill “is needed” and points out employees are getting burned out because of heavy workloads.

Even Lee acknowledged in late 2022 more social workers had to be hired — with the lure of better salaries — to handle foster care cases and find children better places to live. The administration increased funding immediately and started expediting new hires, more than a year after the Tennessee Lookout reported that children were staying in state offices.

Haile, who handled other DCS-related legislation for the governor, said “there was some confusion on the cost,” even though the bill initially had an “insignificant” expense for the state.

The department said the bill could be funded with an amendment dropping caseloads to 18 rather than 15 over two years, and the amendment was inserted but the bill didn’t get through the budget process, according to Haile.

The state’s Fiscal Review Department submitted a corrected financial impact outline saying the current DCS budget contains enough money to fund the bill but because of staff vacancy rates the money had not been spent and reverted to the state’s general fund.

If all positions were filled, according to that report, state expenditures would total $2.1 million with another $1.4 million coming from the federal government.

But by that time, the Senate and House had gone through the budget process and the bill didn’t receive approval.

“The real conclusion I drew on that was it was gonna cause some conflict, and there was so much stuff going on those last two or three days, and the House had a huge number of bills,” Haile says.

As a result, the legislation was postponed until next year.

On the other hand, he points out the Legislature and Department of Children’s Services both want to cut caseloads, and the department is filling vacant positions quickly, he says.

“They’re moving in the right direction, which is all that bill was intended to do, to say this is where we as a state want to go,” Haile says.

The department has hired 156 case managers this year, and May and June new hire training classes are filled, giving it 180 new personnel, according to spokesperson Alex Denis.

Still, the department has 375 unfilled positions, though it is down from 620 in September 2022 when Commissioner Margie Quin took the post, according to Denis.

“We worked with the Legislature on this bill and were in favor of the caseload cap. Ultimately, we believe the financial note associated with these changes kept it from passing,” she said in a statement. Denis referred further questions to the bill’s sponsors.

Even though Haile downplayed the situation, two Democratic lawmakers were upset when they found out the caseload bill failed to receive approval.

Sen. Heidi Campbell, D-Nashville, at podium, said Republicans, commit to policies that would help people but continually “let us down.”(Photo: John Partipilo)
Sen. Heidi Campbell, D-Nashville, at podium, said Republicans, commit to policies that would help people but continually “let us down.”(Photo: John Partipilo)

Sen. Heidi Campbell, D-Nashville, and Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, both said they will start pushing immediately for passage in 2024. They challenged DCS over its handling of foster children last year when questions arose over the department’s failure to place children in homes.

“If they don’t cap that, most everything they’re doing is meaningless,” Johnson says, adding she’s going to check with DCS workers and “start pounding” on colleagues to pass the bill. She said lawmakers should have known it would have been expensive to fund.

Campbell, a Metro Nashville mayoral candidate, says, “Failing to get life-saving legislation to the floor when children under our state custody are in crisis is indefensible.”

She complained that Republicans, who hold a supermajority in both chambers of the Legislature, commit to policies that would help people but continually “let us down.”

In addition to setting caps on caseloads, the legislation expands the definition of a person residing in a child’s home for purposes of reporting, investigating and treating child abuse to include a person living in a residential setting with a child in DCS custody.

The governor signed a bill into law last week designed to support foster and adoptive families and speed up child placement, mainly by allowing a judicial waiver to cut the time for adoption to three months from six if a court allows it and to give foster parents a six-month respite period while also extending care services for expectant women.

“As an adoptive parent, these supports for Tennessee families would have been music to my ears,” Quin said in a statement.


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Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association.