A state audit released Tuesday recommends immediate action to eliminate unsafe conditions for children under Tennessee Department of Children's Services care.
"The safety, permanency and well-being of Tennessee's most vulnerable children is in jeopardy," said the performance audit of the department conducted by Tennessee's Comptroller of the Treasury, covering Aug. 1, 2020, to Aug. 31, 2022.
Key takeaways from the audit include "crisis" level turnover and employee vacancy rates, inability to find placements for children and "critical child safety incidents and risks" in several department processes.
"Specifically, we found that children may have remained in unsafe situations because management has not met established timelines for key points of child abuse and neglect investigations," the audit said.
(READ MORE: Tennessee Children's Services chief says agency is experiencing 'horrific' turnover rate)
The report also said that the department failed to ensure sexual abuse and harassment reports of children in state custody were investigated and develop an effective process to respond to those allegations.
Margie Quin, who took over as Commissioner for the Tennessee Department of Children's Services in September, acknowledged the troubled state of the department during Gov. Bill Lee's November budget hearings.
"It is no secret that DCS has failed to hire and retain staff, and as a result, has seen unusually high caseload averages throughout the state," Quin said during the November hearing.
Tuesday's audit said that issues are compounded by a rising number of children entering DCS custody.
"Since 2020, DCS has had, on average, over 8,000 children in custody each month," the audit said. "These children are vulnerable and are often the victims of child abuse and neglect."
At the same time, annual case manager turnover rate jumped from 20.3% in 2020 to 55.5% in 2022, with case manager caseloads increasing 63% from August 2020 to May 2022, according to the report.
A response from DCS management included in the report said that similar issues plague agencies tasked with protecting vulnerable children nationwide.
Finding foster families for children and youth with the most severe behavioral health needs is particularly challenging, the response said. As a result, children are having to be housed in "inappropriate settings," such as temporary shelters, hotels and offices.
"The issues are not just germane to Tennessee; all states are faced with children with increased needs, low staffing and fewer placement options," management's response said, noting that a budget request was submitted to increase salaries, improve training, increase provider rates and increase available beds.
(READ MORE: Department of Children's Services housing children – many disabled – in hospitals for 8 months)
Also on Tuesday, Sen. Heidi Campbell, D-Nashville, and Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, announced a new website, TN DCS Concerns, which aims to compile issues, legislation and news reports related to the department.
The lawmakers said in a news release that they've advocated for reform since a 2020 state comptroller's audit found numerous issues within the department, including understaffing and children being forced to sleep on office floors.
Campbell said in a Tuesday interview at the Cordell Hull State Office Building that the new audit shows little has changed since 2020.
"It looks like it's pretty bad, still," Campbell said. "I do commend the commissioner, the new commissioner, for calling attention to the fact that these are issues that have to be addressed."
Campbell also said she commends the governor for "finally" wanting to put additional funds toward DCS, but said to wait until the budget passes in May is "indefensible."
"We're going to have kids falling through the cracks between now and then. We already have kids living in hospitals or sleeping on office floors," she said. "So, we have to do something, and this audit shows us clearly that we're just in worse shape than we've ever been."
Tuesday's audit is scheduled to be presented at the Tennessee General Assembly's government operations subcommittee meeting Wednesday morning in Nashville.
Contact Elizabeth Fite at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6673. Follow her on Twitter @ecfite.
Staff writer Andy Sher contributed to this report.