Health & Human Services

What's It Like to Work at the Department of Children's Services?

Tennessee asked caseworkers this and more in what is believed to be the nation's first survey of state child protection workers.
by | April 8, 2014
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam (center right) meets with the Department of Children's Services.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam (center right) meets with the Department of Children's Services. Flickr/Bill Haslam

Employee surveys are something that state and local governments should do routinely across all agencies and departments. But if I had to pick one agency or department in which they should be done most regularly, it would be in the high-stress, high-burnout world of children and family services (CFS).

When I visit with front-line CFS workers, two things are clear: First, most of them are incredibly devoted to the mission of their agencies and put in a crazy amount of work under very trying conditions. Second, they are all very hungry to tell their stories, both the good and the bad. Just how hungry they are was demonstrated recently by their response to a survey on staff attitudes by the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services (DCS) and the Vanderbilt University Center of Excellence for Children in State Custody. A whopping 70 percent responded to the questionnaire.

For anyone familiar with CFS work, most of the employees’ responses don’t come as a huge surprise, although there were some very telling survey results that deserve attention. For example, of the more than 1,700 employees who responded to the survey, a majority didn’t think their judgment is impaired by “tense or hostile” situations (only 40 percent said it was), and less than 50 percent agreed that “fatigue impairs my performance during emergency situations.” This suggests that workers may be overestimating their ability to perform under stress.

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Other, less surprising, findings on the effects of stress include that more than 75 percent reported impaired performance when their workload gets too excessive and over 80 percent admitted to being “less effective at work when fatigued.”

When it comes to general performance, there were also some notable findings, too. For example, only 51 percent reported that, “My workgroup talks about mistakes and ways to learn from them.” Only 47 percent agreed that, “My workgroup spends time identifying activities we do not want to go wrong.” Only half agreed that, “When errors happen, my workgroup discusses how we could have prevented them,” or that, “My workgroup discusses alternatives to improve how we go about our normal work activities.”

Also a bit startling: Only half of employees say that, “When a child and/or family-related problem occurs in my workgroup, we all get together to figure out a solution.” Clearly, team decision-making -- which is now standard practice in all high-performing systems -- hasn’t made inroads in Nashville.

That lack of introspection and internal communication and experience sharing may also be a failure of management. For example, only 50 percent of staff said that, “If you make a mistake in our workgroup, it is not often held against you.” And a mere 42 percent said, “It is safe to take an interpersonal risk in our workgroup.” All those percentages should be much higher.

That said, just over 60 percent of DCS staff reported that, “Our supervisor understands the needs of employees in my workgroup.” Similarly, the same percentage reported, “My supervisor makes sure that all employee concerns are heard before job decisions are made.”

Still, that’s more than a third of employees expressing a clear lack of confidence in their bosses. And while nearly 80 percent of staff reported that, “Regardless of our supervisor’s formal authority he/she would use his/her power to help the employees in my workgroup,” the rest of the results on overall supervision and support lag at around 70 percent or below. Anyone who has spent any time in the field understands how vital high-quality supervision is to effective staff performance, as well as to the general morale and health of front-line workers.

Possibly making matters worse, when just over 70 percent of front-line workers report that, “My supervisor seriously considers staff suggestions for improving safety for children and families,” you are talking about a significant number of children and families who may not be benefiting from the frequently spot-on observations and assessments of their caseworkers. That response is roughly 30 points shy of where it really should be.

According to Michael Cull, the Vanderbilt professor who helped put the survey together, the next step is for the department to begin working on an appropriate response to the results. “The idea is to actively engage employees," says Cull, "and then develop a set of tactics in response.”

At that, though, the Tennessee Department of Children Services deserves a huge amount of credit for being courageous enough to conduct the survey -- to find out what so many other state children and family services departments apparently do not want to know.

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