NASHVILLE — Tennessee lawmakers voted Wednesday to put the state's troubled Department of Children's Services on a short leash, approving a one-year extension for the agency to get its act together.
Their action follows a new state comptroller audit that contains a dozen critical findings. The list includes the agency's failure to fully respond to child abuse and neglect allegations, among them cases involving sexual abuse and harassment.
Other issues include overwhelmed and underpaid staffers, many of them new hires, quitting. Also, there remain ongoing problems with the state tracking system for children. The list goes on and spurred a dire warning from Comptroller Jason Mumpower's auditors.
"The safety, permanency and well-being of Tennessee's most vulnerable children is in jeopardy," the team of auditors stated in the report.
Members of the General Assembly's Government Operations Committee directed DCS Commissioner Margie Quin -- whom Gov. Bill Lee appointed to helm the troubled agency in September, inheriting a host of problems -- to provide lawmakers quarterly reports on the department's progress in addressing the dozen findings outlined in the audit.
"We've heard the same story for years," House Government Operations Committee Chairman John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, told Quin and other officials. "This is unacceptable, pure and simple. We live in the 21st century."
Lawmakers in theory could put the department into a one-year wind down if DCS officials' actions don't satisfy them by the end of 2023. Given the importance of the agency's functions, that's unlikely. Still, the lawmakers' action underscores their position that problems must be addressed as soon as possible.
In her agency's November budget hearing before Lee, Quin describe the turnover rate among case workers, many of them new hires, as "horrific." She recommended boosting their pay and taking other measures.
The joint Government Operations Committee panel approved a resolution put forth by Senate Government Operations Committee Chairman Kerry Roberts, R-Springfield. It requires Quin's department to present an action plan within 30 days on addressing findings, which include crisis level turnover and employee vacancy rates, the continuing inability to find placements for children and "critical child safety incidents and risks" in several department processes.
Roberts noted the original idea was to have DCS come back in six months with a report.
"But I don't want to wait six months," Roberts said, adding he wanted Quin to report back to himself and Ragan on a quarterly basis to advise how the department is proceeding on its strategic plan and newer issues raised in the most recent audit. Colleagues quickly approved the motion.
The latest agency woes come five years after then-Gov. Bill Haslam and his Children's Services commissioner celebrated with great fanfare the decision by a U.S. District judge to let DCS's troubled foster care program emerge from 17 years of oversight.
Quin informed lawmakers the department is currently responsible for 9,234 minors -- which include a number of delinquents, children who have been abandoned by their parents, children who have major health issues or teens with mental health problems that their families can't manage.
One controversy has been over children being held in state offices due to understaffing and an inability to place them in foster care or private facilities, an issue that plagued Quin's immediate predecessor, Jennifer Nichols, and continues now. Another was recent revelation that a number of children are being held in hospitals.
Quin noted one of the issues the department faces is private-run facilities taking in children and youth from other states, paying premiums the state can't match.
Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, a Chattanooga Democrat, said action is sorely needed.
"It appears to be a crisis," said Hakeem, who doesn't serve on the Government Operations Committee, in a phone interview Wednesday. "We're losing employees left and right. About 49% of people who've been there a year have quit, and a number of people who've been there for years have decided to retire. On top of that, we have a number of children who are sleeping in our offices. Some with mental health issues can wind up in hospitals for 100 days because there's no way to take care of them."
Hakeem said one thing he has found heartening is that Quin hasn't been shy about seeking money to right the ship. She has asked Lee for $156 million to boost salaries and fund other actions. He said Lee appears to be in tune with how bad the situation is.
Hakeem said he has introduced a bill to limit the number of children individual case workers can handle. Sen. Heidi Campbell, D-Nashville, said she is preparing legislation to address department woes as well.
Quin and administration officials say they want to relieve pressure on case managers but want the figure of 10 to 15 cases per worker to be flexible and not set statutorily.
Hakeem said the interest that has been displayed by Quin and Lee "will make my bill moot." He added action needs to be swift.
"We can't wait until the new budget is ratified in June," Hakeem said. "These are things that need to be addressed now."