Officials with the Department of Children's Services are proposing a modest $2 million increase in state dollars next year to hire more child protective workers, give them additional training and equip them with computer tablets to better document child abuse and neglect cases in the field.
Many of the proposed budget increases are being driven by necessity. DCS is under a federal court order that requires the agency to limit the caseloads of foster care workers — even as the number of children coming into foster care continues to climb. The department's plan calls for hiring 45 more child protective services workers.
DCS Commissioner Jim Henry told the governor at Monday's budget hearing that the agency has made great progress in recent months — after a troubling year. The agency faced intense scrutiny by lawmakers, child advocates and the courts. Child welfare officials have come under criticism for a child abuse hotline that dropped calls, a spike in violence at its youth detention facilities, a faulty computer system and misreporting child death data, among other things.
"In 2012, we took two steps forward and four steps back," Henry said. "I think we've made great progress this year."
Gov. Bill Haslam called the update "encouraging."
DCS has been under court oversight for more than a decade to provide better services to children in foster care. A court settlement requires DCS to limit the number of cases assigned to caseworkers. A junior caseworker can have no more than 15 cases, for example, but court monitors found caseworkers had more. The department is asking for $1.2 million to add 45 new caseworkers.
Last year, the agency took in 8,435 children — up nearly 20 percent from 6,970 children taken into custody in 2009.
Department officials have pointed to a steep uptick in drug abuse and economic pressures on families in recent years as factors behind children being taken out of abusive or neglectful homes and placed into foster care. On Monday, agency officials noted the child abuse hotline — which had been dropping as many as one in three callers — may have been to blame as well, for missed opportunities to intervene in prior years when custody numbers were lower.
There were a "lot of dropped calls a year ago," Henry said. "We're probably doing a better job."
The agency is asking for $500,000 to buy mobile tablets for caseworkers to use in the field and $364,000 for child protective investigation training.
The agency is proposing some budget cuts as well, including cutting $3 million from the juvenile justice division by repurposing a now-empty facility at its Woodland Hills Youth Development Center for boys to use as a training facility. The agency's plan also calls for cutting 11 administrative positions and eliminating eight now-vacant jobs in other areas.
In total, however, the department is proposing a net budget gain that, with an increase in newly available federal dollars, will increase its overall budget to $695 million from $659 million this year.