NASHVILLE, TN – A man let’s call Clifton works for Department of Child Services investigating cases of severe physical or sexual abuse. He usually meets a child at school away from the parents.

He must earn that child’s trust; he must find out what’s going on, he must decide if the child should be taken out of the home. Hopefully, he can place an abused child with another family member or somebody the child trusts.

“Sadly, a lot of kids don’t have those people in their lives,” Clifton said. Recent news reports about DCS illustrate chronic problems that have been going on since Clifton started as a DCS case manager 20 years ago.

There are not enough case managers so workers have excessive caseloads. A second problem is drug-addicted parents.

“The problems are just more exacerbated today because of the drugs,” he said. “It’s an epidemic.” It used to be cocaine and pills but today it’s heroin and fentanyl. “Fentanyl kills people,” he said. When it does, children wind up in state custody.

“Employee burnout is through the roof,” Clifton said. “We just don’t have the resources. I mean the manpower. We just do not have it.”

Clifton said that a case manager has a steep learning curve. The job deals with the victims and their family; it involves school officials, law enforcement, court liaisons, DCS lawyers, other attorneys, counsellors, and judges. In short, there is a lot to learn. It takes dedication and experience to rescue children from dysfunctional families. And sometimes there are no good solutions.

DCS has made a concerted effort to hire more case managers but they can’t keep them. DCS hired a lot of peole with little or no expereince but the retention rate is 40%. “That’s a failure in my book,” said one supervisor we will call John.

In January 2021 DCS had 3,547 employees. There was money in the budget for 3,904. DCS was short 357 employees, mostly case managers.

Caseloads

In 2019 the House unanimously passed a bill to lower workloads to 20 cases per worker. The senate added an amendment that said “DCS shall maintain staffing levels of case managers so that each region has enough case managers to allow caseloads not to exceed an average of 20”.

The DCS lawyer who drafted the change explained it this way to lawmakers:  “You could do a hard case cap, but if you do that you’re going to have to fund us tremendously beyond what we are now or we’ll be lawbreakers from the moment you pass a hard cap,” said Doug Dimond, DCS general counsel.

DCS leaders interpreted the law to mean they just had to put enough cases mangers in the field so regional averages would not rise above 20 cases. In this way DCS weasled its way out of the clear intent of the bill which was to reduce the number of cases each worker had to juggle at any one time.

In 2020, a state audit found 20% of case mangers had more that 20 families in their caseloads and some carried them for months at a time. In addtion, 252 case managers had more than 20 cases a month for at least 6 months; 125 case managers carried more than 20 cases for an entire year.

John said DCS upper management announced a big reorganization plan a year ago. They created new positions for a rapid response team and a triage team. Think of it as a cross between S.W.A.T. and E.R. They were supposed to respond quickly to calls and not let referrals slip through the cracks. The goal, then as now, was to close cases quicker.

But managing a child custody case isn’t like emergency medicine or a hostage situation. John said DCS rolled its plan out in Memphis and the Upper Cumberland but it never went any further. He said they hired a few people but put them in investigations. “We ended up getting more referrals instead of getting new positions,” he said.

Constant Quality Improvement (CQI) meetings were held quite often between teams from different districts. “We don’t have those anymore,” Clifton said. People were so stressed out from hostile working conditions those meetings devolved into bitch sessions of back-biting and bickering. “I just try and keep my head down,” he said.

Two Command Structures

Employees describe two different overlapping hierarchies within DCS. One is centralized out of Nashville. Upper management changes with every new administration and long time employees consider them temporary help even though they are highly paid.

“I‘ve seen about every way you can do this job but we have people coming in and telling us ‘this is a better way’ and they screw it up,” Clifton said. “We have people who are telling us how to do our job who have never done our job.”

None of DCS upper management has experience investigating child welfare cases like the hundreds of employees underneath them. None of them came up through the ranks. That lack of experience lies at the heart of DCS dysfunction; workers blame management and DCS leadership has retaliated.

In a recent survey of employees from 11 regions, Central Office, and the Wilder detention facility, DCS employees described emotional exhaustion from the stress of unreachable deadlines and the poisonous work climate. Here is one comment from a case manager about DCS top leadership. More employee comments can be found here: (DCS employees speak)

“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. “(Central Office)

The other command structure is decentralized and runs through DCS offices covering all 95 Tennessee counties. Regional administrators are keepers of DCS institutional memory. They tend to be career civil servants with decades on the job. They know there are skeletons in DCS’s closet because they put most of them there.

Secrecy and Silence

“We operate like a secret society in a lot of ways,” Clifton said. “Everything we do is confidential.” Case managers don’t talk about their clients because it would violate HIPPA privacy protections.

“That leads to nobody wanting to discuss anything about the job or what’s going on. If somebody gets in trouble we aren’t allowed to discuss it,” Clifton said. When somebody gets chewed out everybody is expected to keep silent about what they have seen or heard.

Long time employees in three different regional offices told the Tribune their regional administrators are bullies who terrorize employees, that they have done it for years, and continue to get away with abusing people despite a number of incident reports in their personnel files.

“I don’t understand how somebody in that position can treat people the way they treat them over the years continually and still be in leadership,” Clifton said.

He said if you get caught discussing those things with other people you will become a target.

“They will retaliate in any way they can. If you show any resistance or stand up for yourself or your team or anybody you will be labeled a problem. And if it continues they put pressure on people until they leave.”

This is a developing story.