Knox judge calls state system ‘near collapse’

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State Rep. Gloria Johnson of Knoxville and state Sen. Heidi Campbell of Nashville are calling for upgrades and reform in the state Department of Children’s Services following testimony Aug. 31 from Knox County Juvenile Court Judge Tim Irwin.

Addressing a committee studying juvenile justice, Judge Irwin said, “We don’t have enough DCS employees. If you haven’t heard that, I’m telling you, it’s near collapse.” Watch Judge Irwin’s full testimony here.

Irwin said the staffing crisis has led to children sleeping on floors in office buildings and going without services that are required by law. He said the state must pay department employees enough “to make these positions attractive for people.”

TN Sen. Heidi Campbell, Rep. Gloria Johnson

The alarming statements are nothing new to Johnson and Campbell.

After hearing whistleblower reports that some DCS employees were managing as many as 90 child cases, they filed legislation to bring the state cap on caseloads in line with best practices that recommend no employee manage more than 12-15 cases.

Together, they have continuously sounded alarms over children dying in DCS custodyinhumane caseloads and a systemic morale problem at the agency.

“These are high-pressure positions where children’s lives are on the line, but caseworkers are not being set up to succeed. No one, not even Superman, can handle the caseloads being put on our caseworkers,” said Jonson. “Some folks are working 12-hour days, nearly seven days a week, and it’s affecting their family life, as well as their mental and physical health.

“We need better working conditions and more caseworkers because pay will never be high enough to survive that level of stress when children’s lives are in your hands,” she added.

“We have billions in surplus revenue and reserves,” Campbell said. “There is no excuse for inaction when obvious solutions are in reach.”

Nashville’s WKRN covered the story including a clip of Judge Irwin’s testimony. As reported by Adam Mintzer, Irwin said the staffing shortage at the DCS has gotten so critical that some of what’s happening to kids in the department’s care is “illegal.”

Irwin is on the Tennessee Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges.

Mintzer said two lawmakers defended the DCS. Some people don’t want to work, said Rep. Andrew Farmer of Sevierville. DCS employees have been given a raise recently and the department has held job fairs and advertised openings, said Rep. Mary Littleton of Dickson.

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.

Sandra Clark is editor/CEO of Knox TN Today Inc.  Sources: WKRN Nashville, state Rep. Gloria Johnson.

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