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Tennessee DCS requests additional $180 million to address decline in foster care placements

Andre Porter, Wikimedia Commons

The Tennessee Department of Children’s Services reported rising issues with foster care placements for children in state custody at DCS's budget hearing last week.

“The real pain point is foster care, and the reduction in the number of families committed to foster care is certainly real in Tennessee: it’s real across the nation right now,” said DCS Executive Director Frank Mix. “That’s our area of focus right now.”

The department reported that since 2021 the average length of state custody stay has increased by 60 days while foster care placements have decreased by 13%. DCS added that Tennessee children in state custody have, on average, more complex and severe issues, further complicating placements.

“Our budget requests items directed at keeping kids and families in communities, with the ability to meet the specific needs of kids today,” Mix said. “Kids don't present the way they did 10 years ago. They certainly don't look like they looked when I started with this agency 30 years ago.”

Despite steady custody entrance and exit rates, DCS said the pandemic’s lingering effects and continual staffing shortages hinder casework and placements.

Still, DCS has significantly improved staffing since a dismal state audit in 2022 revealed that 97% of first-year case managers quit. Commissioner Margie Quin said the current overall turnover rate is around 19% and attributes the improvement to last year’s $190 million budget increase, which allowed DCS to raise the starting case manager salary to over $50,000.

“The significant reductions in case manager vacancies and improved retention of case managers have been a game changer,” Quin said to Gov. Bill Lee in the Nov. 8 hearing.

DCS’s new budget proposal allocates more than 55% of the department’s additional funding requests – more than $100 million – toward foster care and placement. Nearly $60 million will go towards rate increases for foster families, adoptive and guardian families, and network placement providers.

“With the high cost of goods and services and housing, especially in the urban areas of the state, the increased rate will allow DCS to recruit and maintain foster families in the key areas of the state where we need it,” Quin said.

As for increasing network provider rates, DCS said it must have competitive rates to attract placement providers and reduce waiting times for children. These providers are vital for children with nuanced and serious issues, who often require special facilities and resources.

Gov. Lee ended the budget hearing by asking Quin about DCS’s improvements to transitional housing, a topic of intense scrutiny since last year’s audit. It revealed that children sometimes spent nights curled up on DCS office couches and in sleeping bags while waiting for placement.

Quin said DCS is working with a new team that specifically addresses transitional placements.

“We know that there are issues with kids waiting to be placed, and we want to place them as quickly as possible,” Quin said. “The kids that come in that are needing to go to residential placement, or the kids that come in with delinquency charges that are in transitional homes are far more difficult and stay longer in transitional settings. But we are working every day with our community partners and nonprofits.”

Currently, there are more than 250 case manager openings at DCS for the 2024 fiscal year.