By Lucas Johnson, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A Democratic lawmaker who played a role in the formation of the embattled Tennessee Department of Children’s Services says the agency’s commissioner shouldn’t be blamed for deeply rooted problems that she inherited.
The agency recently released information showing that 31 children it had investigated died during the first six months of 2012. The figures were provided after repeated requests by another Democratic lawmaker.
Critics want DCS Commissioner Kate O’Day, who was appointed last year by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, to be replaced.
But Rep. John Deberry of Memphis, who has criticized DCS over the years, told The Associated Press that O’Day isn’t to blame, but rather many of the workers she oversees. He said a solution would be to “clean house.”
“I know that there are mitigating circumstances to some of the deaths,” said Deberry, who cast the deciding vote that got legislation out of a House committee to form the agency in 1996.
“But obviously, you’ve got to have better people watching the children; it’s as simple as that.”
Deberry said in a recent letter to Haslam and House Speaker Beth Harwell — also a Republican — that problems within DCS have been occurring the entire 18 years he has been in the Legislature.
“In my opinion, Commissioner O’Day should be given a reasonable amount of time to assimilate a plan of action that will combat these ongoing issues involving the children of Tennessee,” he wrote in the letter, obtained by the AP.
Day is a former youth counselor who previously served as president and CEO of Child & Family Tennessee, according to the state agency’s website. She was previously vice president of program development and evaluation for Children’s Home Society of Florida, and director of program services for Covenant House of Florida. She also was a co-chair of the Community Coalition for Domestic Violence in Knoxville.
Haslam spokesman Dave Smith said Tuesday that the “governor has visited with DCS employees, has seen them at work and believes the department is committed to its mission.”
“However, as with any department in state government, there is always room for improvement,” Smith said.
DCS was created through the merger of services that had been scattered among several departments.
It was hoped that DCS would improve coordination of services for children, but almost from the beginning it has had management problems. In 2000, a lawsuit was filed accusing the department of failing to adequately care for foster children.
The suit was settled the following year, but the department has made minimal progress since then in meeting requirements of the consent decree.
In 2003, there was an investigation into the deaths of five children in Memphis who were either in state custody or under DCS oversight. In each case, DCS response was weak and its effectiveness questionable, according to a report by the state comptroller’s office.
The agency has had several commissioners since its inception. One notable change occurred in 2004, when then-Gov. Phil Bredesen picked Viola Miller to head the agency. She said in a speech on the House floor at the time that “we will not fix the Tennessee child welfare system overnight.”
“It must be led from the top, but the change will happen from the bottom up,” Miller said.
After hearing her speech, Deberry said even then that the department has a “people problem” that will require a house-cleaning.
“There’s a culture that needs to be changed and people who need to be fired,” he said.
Following the reports of the recent child deaths, Haslam told The Tennessean the news was distressing, but said there is no immediate evidence of wrongdoing by DCS.
In a meeting he requested with the newspaper, which along with Democratic Rep. Sherry Jones of Nashville had also asked for the information, Haslam said that he reviewed the reports and concluded DCS took appropriate action in each case.
Deberry said he’s not trying to tell the governor what to do, but believes he’s capable of making the necessary changes to clean up DCS.
“He’s a business man,” Deberry said of Haslam, whose family owns Pilot Flying J, the country’s largest truck stop chain. “If he went into a company that was top heavy with people who had been there and the company was underperforming, we know what he would do.”