By Anita Wadhwani, The Tennessean

Department of Children's Services investigators are often the first - and sometimes the only - responders to reports of child abuse or neglect.

But child protective services workers in Tennessee undergo the fewest hours of on-the-job training of any professional first-responder in the state.

In fact, cosmetologists, manicurists and massage therapists are required to take more job-specific training than DCS protective caseworkers.

DCS caseworkers must have a college degree and a year of experience in social work, but often have little knowledge or experience in their primary role - investigating allegations of abuse, collecting evidence, interviewing witnesses and recommending whether police and prosecutors become involved with a case.

"In many cases, DCS makes the determination whether a crime has been committed," said TBI Assistant Special Agent in Charge Margie Quinn, who oversees TBI investigations into sex trafficking. "But in some cases, you may not have a worker trained well enough to make that determination. I think DCS caseworkers are geared toward services and protecting children, but they're not police officers, and they're expected to do both."

Now a new joint venture between DCS and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation is intended to beef up the level of instruction for child protective services workers.

The CPS Investigators Academy, taught by TBI agents including Quinn, as well as national child abuse investigation experts, will graduate its first class in December.

The three-week classes are truncated versions of courses taught to TBI recruits. But the training was tweaked after instructors from TBI's training academy shadowed DCS caseworkers making home visits. Quinn said the goal is to equip caseworkers with law enforcement skills.

Training changes

Caseworkers will learn TBI interrogation techniques, how to spot signs of sex abuse, document investigations effectively for prosecution and testify in mock courts to gain practice.

Right now, new caseworkers undergo 287 hours over a nine-week "preservice" training when they start the job, and are expected to take 40 hours per year of continuing education.

In contrast, police officers must undergo a six-month training academy and five months working with a training officer, while TBI agents also attend a similar law enforcement training academy, followed by 11 weeks of TBI training and further specialized training.

Scott Modell, deputy commissioner at Department of Children's Services, said the problem isn't unique to Tennessee. "It's no secret that across the country CPS investigators have some deficits in their training." Modell said. He said there are investigators doing good work, but they need more training because DCS is facing "more and more drug-exposed infants and more families with significant drug issues."

The academy is part of a larger overhaul of the agency's approach to child abuse investigations. DCS eventually will require all CPS workers to have two years' experience in child welfare, instead of one, or a master's degree in a related field and a year of experience.

The agency also is requiring all CPS workers to report directly to supervisors in Nashville, rather than regional supervisors, and putting a cap on how many new cases they are assigned. And DCS is creating new continuing education courses for caseworkers to take on an ongoing basis.

More abuse reports

The changes come nearly a year after public criticisms by sheriffs, child advocates and lawmakers about lax investigations into severe child abuse in Cumberland and Dickson counties and reports of tense working relationships in other counties between police and DCS caseworkers.

The internal changes are taking place as Tennessee is experiencing a steep rise in reported child abuse reports. Last year, DCS investigated 60,000 reports. This year, the agency is on track to investigate 72,000 cases.

The CPS Investigators Academy gets underway Nov. 18 for about 30 child protective services caseworkers. The academy will train all 480 DCS investigators by late 2016.

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