Image Credit: Screengrab from capitol.tn.gov
The Tennessee Conservative [By Paula Gomes] –
“The state makes a poor parent,” said new Tennessee DCS Commissioner Margie Quin at a joint committee hearing on December 14, 2022. Amidst three hours of dialog about the two audit reports on the agency’s shortcomings, the tenth commissioner of the Department of Children’s Services opined relentlessly on how her administration will do better.
The dismal December 2022 report revealed that the agency suffers from a chronic problem of inappropriate placements and ongoing care of children. The report cited DCS for housing children in DCS offices; sleeping on the floor and on mats with little supervision. In summary, DCS takes kids from families that they can’t take care of.
TFACTS, the case management software utilized by DCS, was politely referred to as a “legacy” system when in fact it is cumbersome and outdated. The DCS staff reported to legislators that they had to create their own Excel spreadsheets to track available placements for children that were abruptly removed from their homes. Representative John Ragan demanded that this problem be addressed quickly and told Quin that he personally knew engineers that work with supercomputers in Oak Ridge that would gladly take a contract to build a new program.
The December 2022 report follows a report released just two years prior. In December 2020, the Comptroller’s report cited DCS for failure to hire competent leadership, failure to document supervisory review of case workers, failure to timely complete investigation tasks, failure to maintain licensing documentation, and several other findings related to the safety of children in the custody of the State.
In the December 2020 report, case workers were asked about their work conditions. Staff reported feeling unappreciated and drained due to long work hours, that leadership focused on numbers rather than helping families, and that they were reluctant to bring concerns to leadership for fear they wouldn’t be heard.
One respondent said, “Central office is very punitive towards mistakes, even when the policy is unclear to frontline supervisors and staff. Many of the policies have changed monthly without informing staff. Concerns and challenges to perform certain policies effectively that have changed are ignored. Most ideas are developed in the Central Office despite the disconnect with performing the actual duties. Ideas are rejected despite the years of experience of the team and staff.”
Another said, “DCS as a whole is slow to change and upper management does not like to be challenged. TFACTS has improved since its inception but is still a cumbersome program that has to have other programs to complement it. There are a lot of ways to improve but it goes up to the Safety Circle and comes back down. There needs to be a team that works on inefficiencies… Each single thing needs to be scrutinized. I have yet to find someone in this organization that knows the BEST way to work and close a case efficiently.”
One DCS employee likened working for the agency to being in a toxic relationship. “Executive leadership is scary. They are stressed out and they take it out on staff. It is like being in a domestic violence relationship. You have good days, and those are great. But when you have bad days… they are really bad, and you never know what the trigger is. The power and control cycle is frighteningly similar.”
More than one respondent pointed out that leadership appeared to be more politically motivated than concerned with the best interests of the children placed in the state’s care.
“Executive leadership within Central Office seem to be more concerned with appearances than with best practice,” read one response. “Decisions within this administration appear to be more politically motivated than what is in the best interest of the children.”
Another response stated, “My supervisor and the chief of staff scrutinize my team’s and my work, ensuring to point out every minute flaw… They and the commissioner are hyper focused on doing things for the purpose of preventing audit findings and attention from the legislators, not in doing things for the reasons of child safety or good child welfare practice.”
DCS was created in 1996 and is on its tenth commissioner. With an average of 2 ½ years for each leadership role, there is not a single commissioner that has produced a glowing audit from the Comptroller’s office in spite of the ever increasing budget cast on taxpayers under the mantra of “protecting children”.
Watch for our next report: Tennessee DCS – A History of Failures
About the Author: Paula Gomes is a Tennessee resident and reporter for The Tennessee Conservative. You can reach Paula at firstname.lastname@example.org.