104 7 LINKEDIN 1 COMMENTMORE

The work of investigating child abuse and removing endangered children from homes can elicit stress and strong emotions for the state employees charged with protecting children.

Now those workers with the Tennessee Department of Children's Services have gotten their say in what is believed to be the nation's first survey of state child protection workers. A survey designed by a Vanderbilt University professor has confirmed some assumptions and debunked others about the crucial work caseworkers do.

MORE:

What's it really like to work at DCS?

The survey, created by Michael Cull, assistant professor of health systems management, found that DCS caseworkers:

• consistently work overtime across the state;

• tend not to recognize how stress and fatigue impact decisions; and

• work with supervisors in ways that could be improved for detecting and correcting problems.

With children's lives at stake, DCS leaders now want to use the survey results to improve the workplace for child abuse investigators and foster care support workers.

"We need to start on how we change this forever," DCS Commissioner Jim Henry said. "The reason no other state is doing this is probably because they don't want you to know."

Former commissioner Kate O'Day initiated the employee survey in 2012, admitting then that results may not be "pretty." Henry, too, has said the effort could reveal weaknesses — but embraced it as a step toward change.

DCS leaders and the study's author said the simple act of asking frontline caseworkers what they think has already improved communication and flagged ways to improve.

The 41-question survey — which drew an impressive 70 percent response rate — gauges the relationship between employees and their supervisors, their willingness to speak honestly about problems, and factors that cause burnout.

They were asked to say whether they "dread getting up in the morning," for example, and how often mistakes are "held against" them.

Although no other state has tried such a survey, some national advocates and leaders in other states have since called Tennessee about how it came together.

"We've moved beyond a blame culture, where we won't ever really know what's going on," said Tom Cheetham, DCS deputy commissioner of child health. "Our staff — everyone — needs to believe, not by our words, but our actions, that we're not looking to blame."

On the job

Although researchers can't compare the results to any other child welfare agency, they have found that DCS caseworkers tend to be stressed by long hours and largely unaware of the negative consequences of working while fatigued, said Cull, who works out of the Vanderbilt Center of Excellence for Children in State Custody.

In every DCS region statewide, staff reported working more than the state caseworker standard 37.5-hour work week. Supervisors in the Mid-Cumberland region, which includes counties surrounding Nashville, reported working the most: 48 hours per week.

Cull said risk increases when people try to "power through" stress and fatigue, but that little research has examined caseworkers — in contrast to doctors, nurses, pilots and police officers, for example. Only 40 percent of DCS staff said they were more likely to make a mistake in a "tense or hostile" situation.

Scott Modell, DCS deputy commissioner of child safety, said he wants employees to be at their best when making critical decisions about the safety of abused and neglected children.

He said DCS can improve how employees and supervisors communicate to correct problems and identify things that work well in dealing with families.

"If we only focus on when things go wrong, we're missing 99 percent of when things go right," he said.

Already, DCS has learned from the survey. Davidson County caseworkers, for example, will soon begin each day with a 15-minute "huddle" to talk about challenges in the day ahead.

Because the survey is the first of its kind, officials said they have more work to do. And it's only one piece of a broader push to change the culture at DCS. That push has included pairing veteran staff with newcomers, hosting employee focus groups, and radically revising the fatality review process for when children die while DCS is monitoring them — a process sharply criticized in the past for doing little to help DCS learn from mistakes.

Additional help is on the way. Last year, DCS got to hire more caseworkers and a similar request this year has the governor's backing.

Reach Tony Gonzalez at 615-259-8089 or on Twitter @tgonzalez.

DCS survey questions

More than 1,700 DCS employees statewide responded to a 41-question survey about their work habits and challenges, and 604 included open-ended written responses. Here are some of the questions, which staff answered with responses on a scale from "very strongly disagree" to "very strongly agree."

60% positive

"My supervisor makes sure that all employee concerns are heard before job decisions are made."

71% positive

"My supervisor seriously considers staff suggestions for improving safety for children and families."

51% positive

"My workgroup talks about mistakes and ways to learn from them."

Source: Vanderbilt Center of Excellence for Children in State Custody

104 7 LINKEDIN 1 COMMENTMORE
Read or Share this story: http://on.wbir.com/1nV2LRu