NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — The staffing shortage at the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services has gotten so critical a judge has warned lawmakers some of what’s happening to kids in the department’s care is “illegal.”
Judge Tim Irwin is on the Tennessee Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges and addressed state lawmakers the day before the new DCS commissioner began her new role. At the Committee on Juvenile Justice, he urged state representatives to “throw money” to build up DCS.
“It shouldn’t be a consideration for me to make when I’m trying to decide what to do with a young person whether there is going to be a bed for them or not somewhere,” he said. “We do not have enough DCS employees. If you haven’t heard of that I am telling you it’s near collapse.”
Irwin said a couple of weeks ago, he took a severely mentally ill child to the hospital himself when a bed opened up after his office had closed for the day.
“I put him in my own truck, got a guard from detention, and put him in myself. And knew that bed won’t be there in the morning,” he said.
Irwin told lawmakers in Knox County there are divisions of DCS operating with half their positions open and said there are other counties in the state operating with even fewer employees.
“If we give them the goods and services when they are little, then we don’t need to protect society from them when they get older,” he said.
During the hearing, some lawmakers said one of the issues is that some people don’t want to work.
“They are looking for a handout, they want to sit at home, they want to collect a check from the government, but it takes a special type of person to work with these people,” said Rep. Andrew Farmer (R-Sevierville).
DCS employees have been given a raise recently and also Rep. Mary Littleton (R-Dickson) said the department has held job fairs and advertised that they have openings.
“We worked on getting them a bonus this year but we don’t know how we are going to get them,” she said.
Democratic Representative Gloria Johnson (D-Knoxville) said the problem isn’t simply the salary for caseworkers at DCS. She said the job itself is the issue.
“No one wants a job that is impossible to do well, lower caseloads and workers and families will be successful,” she tweeted.
A 2018 state law requires DCS caseworkers to have on average 20 cases they are responsible for or less, but according to a 2020 audit the department interpreted the law to be the average of cases each region had on a specific day.
“While the department’s regional averages were 20 active cases or below, we found that the department’s caseload data showed that between 18.5% and 28.8% of the department’s case managers carried more than 20 cases based on the day chosen by the department,” the audit reported. “We also identified for the staff that carried more than 20 cases, that there were case managers (six in one month and 35 in another month) that carried 40 or more cases on at least one day for the year.”
Johnson believes that if workers are given fewer cases, the department would be able to hire more staff and alleviate some of the issues Irwin mentioned.
“When I commit a child to DCS and they remain in my detention for weeks sometimes even months without a place to go it’s wrong and it’s illegal,” Irwin said.
DCS did not immediately respond to a request for comment.