By Lucas Johnson, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — State lawmakers told the interim commissioner of the embattled Department of Children’s Services on Wednesday that they want to be made aware of the agency’s challenges so they can help address its problems.
Jim Henry, who headed the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, spoke before the Senate Health and Welfare Committee. He replaces Kate O’Day, who resigned the day before under scrutiny of how her agency handled the cases of children who were investigated as possible victims of abuse and neglect, then later died.
Committee member Doug Overbey said lawmakers would like to have more meetings with agency officials.
“I think it would be very helpful that we meet again like this as we move forward, that we work … together to address the problems,” the Maryville Republican said.
Committee chairman Rusty Crowe said he wants to give Henry time to get situated in his new position, but he’d like to have him back before the committee as early as next month.
“We will be getting with the commissioner to make sure that we can get an update as to what he sees is the problems and in what direction we might want to move,” said Crowe, R-Johnson City.
Also Wednesday, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam told reporters after speaking to a group at Lipscomb University that he did not demand O’Day’s resignation.
“It came down to Kate thinking: ‘Can the department function at full effort?’ And she felt like it couldn’t, and I can understand that,” he said, adding that she actually “made some real progress in the department.”
DCS has been under federal court oversight for more than a decade because of problems with Tennessee’s foster care system.
The agency had made steady progress since 2001 on an improvement plan that reduced caseworker load, required more training and appointed an independent monitor.
But that progress had recently stalled. At a Jan. 25 hearing in that case, the state acknowledged that outside monitors had uncovered nine child deaths during O’Day’s tenure that DCS had missed. Attorneys for the foster children complained that they have no way to evaluate how DCS is caring for their clients because they are receiving almost no information.
DCS blamed ongoing problems with faulty data on a computer tracking system installed in late 2010. Repairs are under way but officials told the court it would be July before the system can sort data and prepare needed reports.
Henry told committee members that progress is being made on the computer system.
“I think we’re on the right track,” he said. “There’s still some problems with it, but I think we’ve cut those down by about two-thirds.”
The department also has been battling news organizations seeking information about how DCS handled some 200 cases of children who died or nearly died between 2009 and the middle of last year.
The Tennessean, The Associated Press and 10 other news organizations sued DCS in state court in December to obtain case records. DCS contended it was keeping the records closed to protect the children’s privacy. Chancellor Carol McCoy ruled last month the agency had to redact and release them.
The state has said the cost to collect and redact copies of the files will be about $56,000. The projected costs range from 1,800 hours of labor to $516 for white-out tape.
Haslam said he wasn’t aware of the price tag until he read about it in the newspaper, but stood by the total.
“I’ll be glad to pay the $500 if Gannett’s struggling,” he said, referring to The Tennessean’s parent company.
The Haslam administration refused a request by the news media to waive the cost of providing the records.
When asked if he thinks the cost is too much, Henry told reporters after the committee meeting that he plans to investigate the matter.
“That’s one of the things I’d like to review,” he said. “It seems a little high to me.”