‘This is unacceptable’: Audit reveals critical failures in Tennessee DCS

Published: Dec. 13, 2022 at 10:42 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - The Tennessee Department of Children’s Services (DCS) is on the verge of collapsing.

Those words are from a state lawmaker after a scathing new audit found that DCS failed to investigate dozens of sexual abuse and sexual harassment cases.

DCS is understaffed, underfunded, and failing the state’s children.

On Tuesday, a lawmaker who’s been raising the red flag for years said children will die if Governor Bill Lee and the super majority don’t take action.

“The thing that is so frustrating to me is that we’ve been calling attention to this for two years,” said State Representative Gloria Johnson. “You’ve got to spend money to fix this or all of these children will be in the juvenile justice system. We know that cases are going up, and it’s leading to fatalities and it’s certainly leading to more trauma.”

Johnson, a Democrat representing Knoxville, sounded the alarm about DCS’ troubles in 2020 and is horrified by the findings of a new study.

Rep. Johnson and Sen. Heidi Campbell set up a website that details many of DCS’ issues over the last few years.

“Sexual assaults. Abuse. Trauma with kids every day sleeping on office floors. This is unacceptable,” she said, “and the trauma we’re putting on those workers is also horrible.”

The new audit by the state Comptroller’s office revealed:

  • DCS failed to investigate dozens of sexual abuse reports
  • Children remained in abusive or unsafe locations
  • Caseworkers failed to make monthly contact with children
  • And background checks for employees and volunteers were disorganized

The Comptroller said, “the safety and well-being of Tennessee’s most vulnerable children is in jeopardy by management’s failure to develop an impactful strategic plan.”

The audit comes just weeks after new DCS chief Margie Quin, a former TBI agent who replaced former DCS Commissioner Jennifer Nichols this fall, told lawmakers her department has nearly 500 job openings and a first-year turnover rate of 47%.

“We think salary increases will help us in these urban areas that are so hard hit,” said Quin, “where it is very difficult to staff at the opening salary of $40,000 requiring a college degree.”

“We have $2 billion in reserves in Tennessee,” said Rep. Johnson. “We have $10 billion in addition to that in surplus. Morally we have to do something now.”

Johnson would like to see an aggressive hiring campaign with higher pay for DCS employees, and more money for foster families with an ad campaign to attract more foster families to the DCS program.

Without swift action, DCS will collapse, Johnson said.

“How many kids are going to be sleeping on a cold office floor on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day because our governor, who’s responsible for these kids in state custody…that’s his custody...is doing nothing?”

Action News 5 reached out to Governor Bill Lee’s office for a statement about the DCS audit. 

A spokesperson provided the following:

“Since assuming her role at the department this fall, Commissioner Quin has spoken candidly about the challenges that DCS is facing. Commissioner Quin has a planned legislative hearing tomorrow to further discuss meaningful solutions to address these challenges, which I encourage you to view.”

If you would like to watch the hearing, it takes place on Wednesday, Dec. 14 at 9 a.m. 

Here’s a link to watch it online: Tennessee General Assembly Schedule (tn.gov)

If you would like to read the full DCS audit, you can do so here.

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