Sen. Campbell, Rep. Johnson call for reforms to protect vulnerable children in state custody

‘Frightening,’ ‘Emotionally exhausting,’ ‘Set up for failure’: Children Services workers sound off about toxic work environment, unmanageable caseloads in alarming workplace survey

NASHVILLE — Employees at Tennessee’s Department of Children Services offered an alarming assessment of the agency in a recent workplace survey that brings into question whether the department is fulfilling its core mission to create safe and healthy environments for the vulnerable children in state custody — or following the law.

Sen. Heidi Campbell (D-Nashville); Rep. Gloria Johnson (D-Knoxville)

“It’s emotionally exhausting to work in such a toxic environment,” one employee at the central office wrote.

“The State of Tennessee has absolutely broken my passion for child welfare work due to its prioritization of data instead of child and family outcomes,” a worker in Northeast Tennessee wrote.

The position feels like a set up for failure because the caseloads are too high…” a Mid-Cumberland staff member said.

The Department of Children’s Services investigates allegations of child abuse and is responsible for more than 9,000 children in state custody. In March, a total of 1,990 workers at the department completed the Safety Culture Survey to assess employee morale, satisfaction and performance.

Nearly 2,000 employees at DCS responded to the workplace culture survey. Hundreds of comments described unmanageable caseloads, lack of resources and a toxic, top-down work environment.

Employees also answered open-ended questions and their comments concerning morale and high caseloads are alarming, according to Rep. Gloria Johnson (D-Knoxville) and Sen. Heidi Campbell (D-Nashville), both members of the Government Operations Committee, which has oversight authority over state government. The lawmakers made the survey results public today.

“It’s shocking and devastating to read comments from workers who feel trapped in a toxic work culture while they’re responsible for 50 or 60 children,” Rep. Johnson said. “That’s a recipe for disaster where the department’s executive team is knowingly letting vulnerable kids fall through the cracks.”

“Let us be clear: the folks on the frontline at DCS, who work with kids and families on a daily basis, are trying to move mountains to help these children, but they just don’t have the support and resources they need to be successful,” Sen. Campbell said. “The governor’s office and the legislature need to step up and help get this department back on track. It’s really unconscionable that, as a state, we have a billion dollar surplus in tax revenues while DCS is having kids sleep on bare carpet in their office buildings.”

Longtime problems persist

Last week, the Tennessee Lookout reported that children, including elementary school-aged kids, were sleeping on the floor of DCS office space in Nashville. Video showed a girl left to sleep directly on the floor without a blanket or pillow.

Last December, state auditors released a damning report that documented a long list of infractions potentially putting children at risk, including a finding that 20% of DCS caseworkers were juggling more than 20 cases at time.

In 2018, the General Assembly considered a hard cap of no more than 20 cases per DCS caseworker, but the legislation was watered down before it passed unanimously. Under the law, case manager caseloads should not exceed an average of 20 active cases relating to assessments and monitoring.

In March, one worker in Northeast Tennessee wrote, “The top down has thought it was appropriate for workers to be carrying 50–60 cases…” Another from Shelby County wrote about the stress of carrying a “high caseload” over 40.

Beyond the stress of unmanageable caseloads, many employees wrote about a “toxic” upper management culture that cares more about closing cases than child outcomes.

“The chief of staff and commissioner are so harsh and critical of everyone’s work that everyone is afraid of losing their jobs and being humiliated in front of our peers, subordinates and supervisors. It’s emotionally exhausting to work in such a toxic environment,” a central office worker wrote.

“Executive leadership is scary. They are stressed out and they take it out on staff. It is like being in a domestic violence relationship,” another said.

Rep. Johnson and Sen. Campbell are calling for reforms that put child welfare at the forefront, starting with a revised cap on caseloads and increased oversight from Gov. Bill Lee’s administration and the legislature.

Background on issues at DCS

  • Last week, the Tennessee Lookout reported that children, including elementary school-aged kids, were sleeping on the floor of DCS office space in the Davy Crockett Tower. Video showed a girl left to sleep directly on the floor without a blanket or pillow. [Tennessee Lookout, 8/1/2021]
  • In July, Tennessee Lookout reported that DCS has stripped its references to the “critical importance” of the COVID vaccine from guidance given to foster parents and removed from its website complete data on the number of kids who have gotten sick. DCS has also stopped providing data on COVID outbreaks in youth detention centers. [Tennessee Lookout, 7/27/2021]
  • “Everything they could do wrong, they did wrong in this case,” said Rebecca Macfarlane, the foster mom. “The truth is DCS dropped the ball.” In April, The Tennessean reported on how issues within DCS were resulting in critical information about kids in state custody was getting lost in the system and causing children to fall through the cracks. [Tennessean, 4/29/2021]
  • In 2020, state auditor found that case managers were juggling caseloads that are too high. 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. [Tennessee Lookout, 12/14/2020]
  • High caseloads are not a new problem either. In 2019, a retired caseworker from DCS told News Channel 5 that rising caseloads and staffing problems were putting children at risk. She spoke out after the death of 2-year-old Zepheniah Green who died from neglect after being placed in a home by DCS. The case worker never visited the child in the four months he was in the home. [News Channel 5, 5/9/2019]

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