KNOX COUNTY, Tenn. — On Tuesday, Juvenile Court Judge Tim Irwin saw a glimmer of hope.
It had been three nights since children had slept on the floor of Department of Children's Services offices in Knox County.
"Things are dire. Things are not good. I can't sugarcoat how bad things are," he told WBIR. "There have been 5, 10, 15 [kids sleeping there] for a long time."
He said Catholic Charities opened a safe place for children awaiting a place to go. It's a temporary solution as they search for a more permanent fix.
"We've got some things working on the problems of kids in the offices," he said. "But what we desperately need is for DCS workers to make an attractive wage. We need good, bright, energetic people."
Irwin said roughly 56% of the DCS positions in Knox County are filled right now, including new hires that are still in training.
He said the staffing shortages are troubling because they could mean more children are slipping through the cracks.
"Has our system completely crashed? Not here. Not completely. But, [it's] close," he said. "We can't run child welfare without people to work in child welfare."
He said DCS doesn't have enough people to quickly investigate the reports it receives.
"We're overworking the people that we've got left. It's a bad, crucial situation," he said. "Our people that are working at the department are heroes. They're doing double shifts. They are pouring their heart and souls into it, but we need to get them some help."
Irwin warned lawmakers in testimony this summer about the crisis.
Last week, new DCS Commissioner Margie Quin told Gov. Bill Lee that she'd be requesting an additional $156 million in funding for the department.
"It's definitely needed," state Sen. Becky Massey, R-Knox County, said. "I feel sure the governor will be looking very seriously at a lot of these areas that have traditionally been underfunded."
Judge Irwin said increasing funding for DCS, its employees and its contractors isn't optional. Without it, he said they won't be able to continue their work.
"[If] we don't have eyes and ears, we're in trouble," he said. "Children need to be our first priority, not our last. I hope the legislators out there hear that and I hope they do something about it in this legislative session."