NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL) — Tennessee’s Department of Children’s Services (DCS) should reevaluate strategic planning “to address the root cause of and fix systemic issues that have plagued DCS for years” a comptroller’s audit released Tuesday warns.

The highly critical report says DCS has “a failing case management system” and is struggling to support the state’s most vulnerable children and youth. DCS is currently short about 400 case managers of what’s needed, and high turnover has been making the problem worse, not better, in recent months.

“The safety, permanency and well-being of Tennessee’s most vulnerable children is in jeopardy by (DCS) management’s failure…” the report said, citing five main failings, including inadequate responses to abuse and neglect allegations outside of and within the system.

A state legislator and a juvenile judge, both from Greeneville, said Tuesday’s report was important, that it showed the urgent need for change and that it was sadly unsurprising in its findings.

“DCS has largely been like a dog chasing its tail going in circles trying to figure out what the next best way to address children’s issues is going to be,” State Rep. David Hawk (R-Greeneville) said. “And we’re still chasing that.”

But both Hawk and General Sessions (and juvenile) Judge Kenneth Bailey said the problem has worsened considerably since the COVID-19 pandemic — and that the shortages are placing thousands of children at great risk.

“The state has shut down facilities, they’ve scaled back facilities,” Bailey said. “There’s no place for kids to go.”

He mentioned a recent instance of a 5-year-old who spent six weeks “being bounced back and forth between the Isaiah House and the DCS office while they were trying to find a placement for that child.

The child “was already dealing with significant trauma. I can’t imagine how further traumatized (they were) by being bounced back and forth from place to place,” Bailey said.

Hawk said kids like his 11-year-old daughter routinely see children come into their classrooms only to be shuttled off to another placement.

“I can’t even begin to put myself in the shoes of that 11-year-old who’s actually coming into state’s custody and the challenges that they’re receiving,” he said. “These realities are breaking my heart.”

It is about the money

Both Hawk and Bailey, who handles juvenile cases in Greeneville, said much of the problem comes down to funding.

“I do want to take a moment to say thank you to our our current (DCS) workers,” Hawk said. “They are doing yeoman’s work and really going above and beyond with the cards that they’ve been dealt.”

Hawk said those “cards” include low pay. He said the state’s finances put it in a position to “make a big dent” toward the estimated $120 million in recurring funding that would be needed to make salaries competitive and fund sufficient positions.

“There has to be a willingness from the administrative branch to provide that funding mechanism and then let us as a legislative body, go through that and see exactly what is needed and put those monies where they’re going to be best utilized,” Hawk said.

The audit shows actual average caseloads well above what averages should be in every region in the state. The actual average caseload in Northeast Tennessee was 22.9 in March, with a potential average caseload of 14.8 if all positions were filled — an average caseload 54% over what it should be.

Bailey said case workers also tell him of being asked to work about eight six-hour shifts monthly sitting with kids “in addition to their regular working hours.”

“They are exasperated,” he said. “They’re stressed. Part of our shortage is we’ve got workers that have said, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’”

Bailey said it’s not just the case managers who need to be taken care of so that children can be better taken care of. He said the private agencies that contract with the state, like Holston Home for Children and Omnivision, need to be brought to the table.

“The state has to go to these providers and say, number one, ‘can you expand your program,’ and ‘how much do we need to pay so you can expand and/or duplicate your program.”

Bailey said there are 14 children in Northeast Tennessee without places to stay right now. That type of situation has been ongoing and led to children spending the night in state offices, among other less-than-ideal temporary situations.

“We don’t have enough programs right now,” Bailey said. “We’ve either shut them down or scaled them back.”

“I think a lot of it is a money issue,” he added, saying some of the providers have told him of taking children from other states because they pay a higher per-child amount for placement and care.

Hawk said he also hopes the state can streamline the process for becoming a foster parent without sacrificing proper background checks and oversight.

“We need to open the door for foster parents to come in in an easier way while still protecting the safety of the child that they are going to be placed in a safe home,” he said. “There’s some things legislatively we could do.”

Hawk said he hopes people from Gov. Bill Lee’s administration and the agency, people in the judicial branch and legislators can all “leave their egos at the door” as they tackle the issue.

“Let’s come together and do what’s best for all of our children,” he said. “Whether it be through maybe somebody giving up a little bit within the judicial system to get a little something on the administrative side, we need to do that…

“There probably has to be some better conversation with each other instead of talking to each other through the media right now.”

Bailey said he’s saddened by what the report reveals but glad it’s out.

He said three juveniles in the region currently sitting in the hospital waiting for mental health crisis placement exemplify the challenges currently being faced.

“COVID made a bad situation worse,” Bailey said.

“It became a perfect storm because staffing levels dropped… COVID exacerbated so many mental health issues, depression and anxiety for kids. It’s terrible.

“I’m happy to see the attention that has been brought to it and I’m hoping some good will come from it. It’s a story that needs to be told because these kids are suffering.”

The full audit, which is very detailed and includes a host of findings and recommendations, can be reviewed here: