‘Near collapse’: Juvenile judge’s DCS testimony renews call for caseworker reform

NASHVILLE — Testimony from a longtime juvenile judge describing the state Department of Children’s Services as “near collapse” is prompting lawmakers to renew their call for caseworker reform.

Addressing a committee studying juvenile justice on Aug. 31, Knox County Juvenile Judge Tim Irwin said, “We don’t have enough DCS employees. If you haven’t heard that, I’m telling you, it’s near collapse.”

Watch Judge Irwin’s full testimony here.

In his remarks, Judge Irwin says the staffing crisis has led to children sleeping on floors in office buildings and going without services that are required by law.

“I’m telling you right now: throw money at it,” Judge Irwin said. “We have got to make these positions attractive for people… We have got to make these on-line positions attractive — they are vital to our children and our state.”

Rep. Johnson, Sen. Campbell have pushed for caseworker reform

The alarming statements offered by Judge Irwin are nothing new to Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, and Sen. Heidi Campbell, D-Nashville.

After hearing whistleblower reports that some DCS employees were managing as many as 90 child cases, Rep. Johnson and Sen. Campbell filed legislation to bring the state cap on caseloads in line with best practices that recommend no employee manage more than 12–15 cases.

Together, they have continuously sounded alarms over children dying in DCS custody, inhumane caseloads and a systemic morale problem at the agency.

“These are high-pressure positions where children’s lives are on the line, but caseworkers are not being set up to succeed. No one, not even Superman, can handle the caseloads being put on our caseworkers,” said Rep. Jonson. “Some folks are working 12 hour days, nearly seven days a week, and it’s affecting their family life, as well as their mental and physical health.

“We need better working conditions and more caseworkers because pay will never be high enough to survive that level of stress when children’s lives are in your hands,” Johnson added.

With DCS in a prolonged staffing crisis that’s harming children in state custody, Sen. Campbell takes issue with Gov. Bill Lee’s support for a statewide abortion ban.

“It is indefensible for Gov. Lee to force women and girls to carry pregnancies to term while he’s ignoring a staffing crisis that’s victimizing vulnerable kids in state custody,” Campbell said. “We’ve been sounding the alarm about the DCS staffing crisis for over a year. We wrote legislation to fix the underlying problem. We’ve repeatedly raised our concerns with DCS and the Governor.

“We have billions in surplus revenue and reserves,” Sen. Campbell said. “There is NO excuse for inaction when obvious solutions are in reach.”

Background

Lawmakers address toxic work environment at Department of Children’s Services. [Senate Democrats Newsroom, 8/5/21]

“Worse than it’s ever been” says Juvenile Court Judge Sheila Calloway about kids staying in DCS office buildings. [NewsChannel5, 4/6/22]

Foster parents across Tennessee are pushing for changes at the Department of Children’s Services claiming unfilled caseworker positions are hurting children. [NewsChannel5, 7/18/22]

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