NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — State leaders have said the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services “is near collapse,” “can’t meet those child’s needs” and is filled with “a traumatized workforce and traumatized kids.”

Therefore, when the head of DCS presented her proposed budget to Governor Bill Lee Thursday, she did not soften her words about the problems facing the state’s foster children.

“Medically fragile children and children with unique needs are increasing in number and are getting increasingly hard to place,” DCS Commissioner Margie Quin said.

According to the department, there were 8,416 children in foster care last month, which is higher than the department had at that same times in 2020 and 2021.

“It’s just numbers that we never saw coming, needs that we never saw coming,” said Isaiah 117 House founder Ronda Paulson.

Paulson’s nonprofit cares for children who have just been removed from their homes by DCS and are awaiting foster placement. She says not only are her homes busier than ever, but the time to place the kids now ranges from eight hours, as it was in previous years, to three days.

Paulson explains that in addition to more children needing help, she is seeing them come to Isaiah 117 with more intense traumas than she has seen previously.

“The reason that children are removed from their home is because there is an imminent chance of serious harm or death. You couple that with the new needs that we see from all of our children when it comes to anxiety and depression. And, you couple those two things and have children entering our system that need help, serious mental health issues that foster homes aren’t equipped to deal with,” she said.

Paulson sees this as a multi-pronged problem that needs many solutions, but one of the main and most immediate needs is more foster parents.

“We didn’t get to train them in 2020. Several of them closed their homes in 2020. We were all scared, we all locked them down and they haven’t come back post-2020,” she explained.

The other area that she feels needs to be addressed is the caseworker’s caseload and pay, which Commissioner Quin addressed in Thursday’s meeting.

She says that DCS also doesn’t have the staff to keep up with these demands and understands how new DCS caseworkers have a nearly 50 percent turnover rate in their first year.

“It is no secret that DCS has struggled to hire and retain staff,” Quin said. “Part of our budget ask is going to be an increase in salary to try and stem the tide of that 47% turnover rate in the first year.”

Paulson says this work is a calling for the caseworkers she interacts with, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be paid more in her opinion.

“They physically can’t do it anymore, too many hours, too many cases, and they are dropping off and they are good they are so good at their job,” she said. “Then, we have these voids. So, now, we have very new caseworkers dealing with some of the most complex cases I’ve ever seen.”

She says not only do these caseworkers need more training to be able to deal with the multitude of traumas these children in DCS have experienced, but the caseworkers need mental health resources themselves.

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Paulson says all these kids in DCS custody are “our” kids, so they deserve our best.