Tennessee Children’s Services chief says agency is experiencing ‘horrific’ turnover rate

Staff File Photo / The State of Tennessee's Department of Children's Services office in housed at the East Gate complex.

NASHVILLE -- The new head of Tennessee's troubled Department of Children's Services said Thursday that almost half of the first-year caseworkers hired in the past 12 months have already quit their jobs.

Commissioner Margie Quin called the 47.6% turnover figure "pretty horrific" during her agency's budget presentation before Gov. Bill Lee, who named Quin to replace then-Commissioner Jennifer Nichols, a former prosecutor from Memphis, on Sept. 1.

"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 told Lee as the Republican governor continued his public budget hearings with chiefs of departments and agencies.

Quin said the department has 486 vacancies across Tennessee that need to be filled.

"We think some salary increases will help us in these urban areas that are so hard hit. It is very difficult to staff at the opening salary of $40,000, which requires a college degree," said Quin, who asked the governor to raise that to $45,000 annually. "That's a really difficult starting salary for some of these areas we're asking them to live."

The commissioner said new case managers are burning out quickly because of understaffing created by departing workers.

Increased expenses of placing children throughout the private provider network along with a shrinking number of placement options and foster families has "forced case managers, supervisors and even deputy commissioners to sit with children and youth in DCS offices and transitional housing," the commissioner said during her budget presentation to the Republican governor.

The reference to staff sitting with children and youth grabbed newspaper headlines and drew television coverage across the state as minors had to sleep in state offices, sometimes on the floor with no blankets, due to lack of proper space elsewhere.

State comptroller audits revealing high caseload averages and response times "are all due to low-staffing numbers," Quin said.

Lee said the turnover rate is "one unique thing, challenge, in the overall program. Managers are the other. And you solve one, and you begin to solve the other."

He asked Quin where the state needs to be on case managers.

Quin said the nearly 500 openings need to be filled to be fully staffed. There are about six regions that are harder hit than others. For example, some such as Davidson County, are "woefully understaffed," she said.

She said the agency is doing some "strategic staffing," bringing in staff over the weekends to aid understaffed areas to "help keep their head above water."

Quin said the state has experienced a rise in child and youth in foster care cases, with the latest case count by Oct. 31 at 8,416.

"At the same time, we're experiencing an increase in the number of delinquent youth on the juvenile justice side," she told Lee, noting the numbers began rising during mid-2022, with latest available figures hitting 628 with the placements at the state's Wilder Youth Center in Somerville, Tennessee, and privately run facilities.

Adoption assistance was provided for 11,583 minors, while subsidized guardianship was up to 2,385. At the end of October, there were 16,130 open, noncustodial cases, Quin said, prompting this reply from the governor.

"Say that again?" Lee said.

Quin repeated the figures.

The agency was in the spotlight last year locally amid a controversy over migrant children and alleged sexual misconduct involving the Baptiste Group's shelter in Chattanooga.

State Rep. Gloria Johnson, a Knoxville Democrat who has been critical of the Lee administration's handling of the department during legislative hearings and elsewhere, said she asked to meet with Quin after her appointment and did so.

"I could tell she understands the mess that they're in," Johnson said. "My concern is, she doesn't come from a social service background."

Quin is a former Tennessee Bureau of Investigation agent, and before her appointment as commissioner by Lee, she was CEO at the human trafficking direct service nonprofit End Slavery Tennessee. She has a master's in public service management and more than 25 years of law enforcement experience.

"The whole problem is we got into this mess because someone was a prosecutor and didn't know enough about how this works," Johnson said, referring to Nichols.

Johnson said Quin wants to right the ship, but said the commissioner will face a steep learning curve.

Shortly before Quin began her job, Knox County Juvenile Court Judge Tim Irwin, who serves on the Tennessee Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, urged state legislators to allocate funding to keep the Department of Children's Services going.

"It shouldn't be a consideration for me to make when I'm trying to decide what to do with a young person whether there is going to be a bed for them or not somewhere," he said, according to Knoxville television station WATE. "We do not have enough DCS employees.

"If you haven't heard of that, I am telling you it's near collapse," Irwin added.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.