MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The new State of the Child report has put a lot of people on edge, and is having lawmakers pushing for change as the most recent legislative session gets underway in Tennessee.
The report, released last week, is having people describe the current foster care system as horrific and dangerous for children in state custody.
“It appears that they are on the verge of a complete collapse,” said State Senator Raumesh Akbari (D) - Memphis.
According to the report, over 33% of children in the foster care system experience instability and have had to move homes three or more times over the past year. It’s currently leading the country in this statistic and is more than twice the national average — the next closest is Puerto Rico at almost 26%.
“You have them sleeping in office buildings — some of them being housed in hospitals for over 100 days,” Senator Akbari said.
Lawmakers say the current set up has let several kids fall through the cracks. It has left some children unable to go to school or even take a shower for days. In addition, several caseworkers have had to take on additional cases, sometimes overwhelming them.
“Upwards of 50; 60, 70 cases, and it really is unsustainable,” Senator Akbari said.
In a press conference, State Representative Gloria Johnson said some employees have been mandated to handle over 100 cases, with some having to work 12 or 14 hour workdays. This stress on the workers has sometimes left several potential and willing foster parents unable to help out.
“I had an Uber driver a few weeks ago in Nashville, and he talked about the foster care system — he’s a foster care dad,” Senator Akbari said. “He said it’s hard to get in touch with people at DCS. Whenever they have to go to court, there’s always some confusion there, so yes we really need more manpower.”
Representative Johnson and State Senator Heidi Campbell are currently championing bills to create a case cap for caseworkers at the Department of Children’s Services. It is a practice that has been done in places like Indiana.
“The best case load has been proven to be 12 cases or fewer,” said Senator Akbari.
The state has been able to hire 52 new caseworkers to help with the staffing issues DCS has seen. Still, lawmakers say there is still a long way to go.
“We’re short over 500 case workers in the state,” Senator Campbell said.
Lawmakers are saying the new state budget will need to include enough money to help offer current and future employees a liveable and competitive wage, while also helping find more qualified foster parents.
“That’s going to require an active and aggressive marketing program,” Senator Campbell said.
This is going to take roughly $165 million in tax dollars according to DCS’s own estimates. Still, even if the new budget were to be approved, it will not go into effect until the next fiscal year in July.
This is why Senator Campbell has been pushing emergency funding for DCS to help treat the issue sooner.
“We continue to put pressure on social media, through the media and also have written letters to the governor and are regularly contacting people in the field to put pressure on both DCS and the administration to do something about these kids falling through the cracks immediately,” Campbell said.