GREENEVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL) – Northeast Tennessee is in desperate need of foster care families.
The Department of Children’s Services is at capacity to the point where caseworkers are having to stay overnight with children in the office.
“Last night here in Greene County we had six females that slept at the DCS office on air mattresses,” said Greene Co. Juvenile and Sessions Judge Ken Bailey. “They have to shuttle them to our Isaiah house to take a shower. The DCS office is a working office. There are workers there trying to do their jobs during the day then they have these kids that they’re having to watch out for while at their workplace.”
News Channel 11 reached out to DCS about children staying overnight at the office.
The department didn’t have anyone available for an interview but a spokesperson for the state office said-
“There are four children in Greene county awaiting placement and one who has found a placement but waiting to be transported.”
The state couldn’t elaborate on how the children were housed overnight or about the discrepancy in how many.
“I was told there were six that originally there were going to be seven and one got placed and six spent the night,” Judge Bailey said. “Not all of those were from Greene county. Some of those were from neighboring counties but our Isaiah house was full with boys that were awaiting placement.”
DCS says caseworkers will stay with children until a placement is found.
“While our case caseworkers review the case and seek placement appropriate to the child’s needs, the child will wait in a DCS office with their caseworker. Children are then provided a temporary or permanent placement in a home setting or group care when indicated. When a placement is not readily available, the first option exercised is a transitional home until a placement can be found,” the spokesperson said. “We are grateful for the sacrifices they make on a daily basis. Their willingness to stay with children overnight, taking time away from their own children and families, shows their dedication to Tennessee youth.”
Bailey has been a juvenile and sessions court judge in Greene County since 2006.
“This is the worst I’ve ever seen it. If we didn’t have those houses then we would have every DCS office in this region with kids sleeping on air mattresses. That’s not acceptable,” Bailey said. “These DCS workers are having to work around the clock literally to sit at the office and at the Isaiah Houses with these children and that’s costs to the state of having to pay these workers overtime of having to sit at the office in four-hour shifts or at the Isaiah house and has got to be an exorbitant number.”
Recently, there has been an influx in the number of children in the system.
“The number of children going into custody has gone up. We’ve had the number of foster parents decrease because of Covid issues and we’ve had placements that aren’t taking as many children as they were prior to Covid,” he explained. “It’s really caused a log jam in the system.”
Since the pandemic, children are also battling more mental health issues.
“It adds to the unknown of ‘Where am I going to go?’ It adds to that depression of ‘They can’t a place for me… my problems are so bad, my issues are so bad that they can’t even find someone that will take me so that adds to that depression,” Bailey explained. “Those children that are entering into the system are harder to place because programs that can address those mental health issues are full and so kids go on waiting lists and while they’re on that waiting list they’re sitting at the Isaiah House, they’re sleeping at the DCS office.”
The issue is region-wide as all seven Isaiah 1:17 homes in Northeast Tennessee are at capacity.
“All of our homes and all of our visitation spaces are completely full and they have been,” said founder and executive director Ronda Paulson. “We desperately need caseworkers. We desperately need foster families.”
The homes are designed to care for children for a short time while they await foster placement.
“The model wasn’t created to sustain lengthy stays by multiple families so we’re feeling the effects of that,” Paulson said. “Our average stay is still only about two days when you take all the children that have come.”
While full bedrooms and longer stays are tough- the hardest part is not being able to help.
“We have had some guests that had to stay a really long time and you want to talk about heartbreak. There’s truly no place for that child to go and they know it,” said Paulson. “We have enough churches in this region that if we could have a foster home in every church, we could solve this. We are not broken beyond capacity.”
The biggest need for Isaiah 1:17 is volunteers, you can contact your local house to find out how you can help.
To find out more about how to become or support a foster family at tnfostershope.tn.gov.