The embattled Department of Children Services is asking for an $8.6 million budget increase next year, largely to hire more caseworkers and increase payments to parents who adopt and foster children.
The funding request comes as the department is in the spotlight after revealing that 31 children it had investigated died in the first six months of this year.
“I think these are issues that are very much in front of everyone,” said Kathryn O’Day, DCS commissioner. “We’ve been very thoughtful, careful to be sure that these are targeted investments that we feel have a very, very high probability of actually saving us money down the road or proving to be wise investments.”
The bulk of the proposed budget would come in the form of increases in payments to parents who adopt or foster children to the tune of $5.8 million.
The department hopes to hire 29 additional caseworkers in child protective services, 20 family service caseworkers to focus on children already in custody and 13 new attorneys. Between the additional staffing and raises, the agency is asking for $2.7 million to attract and keep caseworkers in child protective services jobs.
Gov. Bill Haslam, who asked each department to also prepare plans for a 5 percent budget reduction, said he understands the need to give the department more money next year but said it would be difficult in a tight state budget.
The governor later told reporters that he is leaning toward giving the department at least some of what it's asking for, such as a hiring more case workers and giving them a pay bump.
"It's very difficult emotional work and we're not paying very much. Well, no wonder we have turnover," said Haslam after the day's budget hearing. "That piece of it makes some sense. Beyond that, we'll have to evaluate."
Agency heads said they are also working out issues with the Tennessee Family and Child Tracking System for data management, that is supposed to distribute information to a data “warehouse” regarding factors like cases, children and caseworkers. Using the system has had some state workers “in tears,” O’Day said.
“Nobody wants the data out of TFACTs more than we do,” said O’Day. The reporting function has been difficult to access, a problem the agency expects to be fixed by year’s end.
“To manage an organization this size and this complexity and all the things that are going on, we need good data,” she said.
The troubles plaguing the department lie at the commissioner’s feet, said Nashville state Rep. Sherry Jones who has been critical of the agency.
“If the commissioner can’t get a handle on things any better than what she’s got now, then she probably needs to be thinking about moving on somewhere else and let somebody else step in who knows what’s going on.”