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Investigators: DCS survey shows employees feel unsafe in Shelby, other counties

Published: Aug. 5, 2021 at 6:41 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - State lawmakers believe Tennessee’s most vulnerable children are in danger because the Department of Children’s Services (DCS) cultivates a toxic work environment.

The legislators held a press conference Thursday about a recent DCS employee safety survey, which the Action News 5 Investigators obtained last month.

Nearly 2,000 DCS employees responded to the Safety Culture Survey, which asked how safe they felt working for the department.

“They’re sounding the alarm and we need to listen,” said Representative Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville.

Johnson and Senator Heidi Campbell from Nashville said the responses to the survey were alarming and that change needed to happen now because lives depend on it.

The Investigators read through the survey’s dozens of responses.

Wilder Youth Development Center employees in Fayette County responded to the survey, saying “it’s not safe here,” “there is a shortage of guards,” and the youth are “out of control.”

Employees in Shelby County responded: “emotional exhaustion limits my ability to provide quality service” and “personal safety is not a factor with upper management in DCS.”

DCS workers in the regions covering Dyer and Tipton counties said: “I have been subject to assaults on several occasions from children” and, “the job is great. However, the supervision and leadership tend to make this job difficult.”

Campbell and Johnson said workers should not have more than 20 cases at a time and they want state law to reflect that. They also want to hire more employees and pay them better.

“We’re talking about some not great wages for one of the most stressful jobs you’ll ever have, and so we have to incentivize people,” said Johnson.

DCS was audited by the state comptroller last year, whose report showed scathing deficiencies throughout the department.

The Investigators asked if things had gotten better at DCS since that audit.

“These comments and some of the actual phone calls we’ve had with people indicate there has not been a positive change and a lot of them have commented that they feel it’s getting worse,” said Campbell.

We asked DCS for an interview two days before the press conference but were not granted one.

The safety survey had been sent out to employees four times since 2013. The trends show burnout levels within the department went down slightly from 2018 to 2021, while emotional exhaustion went up.

DCS said that nine individuals made comments aimed at executive leadership and that the agency is providing a 4.25 percent salary increase to case managers who have been with the department for more than one year, on top of the state employee salary increase.

The separtment said in a statement:

“The Tennessee Department of Children’s Services employs some 3,600 employees who help Tennessee families navigate challenging situations like abuse, neglect, and other child welfare issues. While the nature of this work is inherently difficult, DCS makes every effort to create both a healthy work environment and set high expectations for how the department serves Tennessee families.”

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