By Lucas Johnson, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The man who took over Tennessee’s embattled child welfare agency said Tuesday he’s addressing problems that have plagued it for years, including having staffers personally call him when a child death is reported.
Tennessee Department of Children’s Services interim commissioner Jim Henry and key members of his staff spoke before the House Government Operations Committee about improvements made since Henry stepped in about a month ago. Henry replaced Kate O’Day, who resigned at the end of last month.
The agency has been heavily scrutinized for years and has come under even more fire recently because of the number of children who have died while in its custody. More than 200 Tennessee children lost their lives or nearly died since 2009 after having some contact with the agency. The exact number isn’t clear.
So far this year, six children have died in state custody.
Henry said changes include having regional administrators call his personal cellphone when a child dies and immediately notifying lawmakers in that child’s district. He said a death review process has been established and cases are checked monthly.
“Within one hour, we’ll know if a child in custody has died,” Henry said. “We have a tremendous responsibility to learn from that death and prevent future deaths.”
The department, which was created in 1996 to better coordinate services for troubled children, is often in the news for problems ranging from juvenile detention facility escapes to long waits on hold to report child abuse.
DCS has been under federal court supervision since it settled a class-action lawsuit with Children’s Rights in 2001 over its treatment of foster care children. The agency has spent the past decade working to achieve the goals spelled out in that agreement. They include limiting the time children stay in group homes, keeping them close to their home communities, keeping siblings together and heavily involving relatives in the care of children under state oversight.
U.S. District Judge Todd Campbell and others say DCS for a while made significant progress meeting the goals, and in 2010, the judge approved a plan that would have put an end to court oversight in 2011. Haslam took office at the beginning of that year and installed O’Day as commissioner.
At a recent federal court hearing, Campbell said that since 2011, the $637 million agency has been moving backward.
DCS officials didn’t specify exactly what’s being done, but they told the committee on Tuesday that the agency is making progress in regard to the settlement goals.
Committee members discussed issues including more transparency within the agency and providing it with adequate funding to handle its needs and requests, such as hiring someone that would work strictly with law enforcement and court officials.
“I want to reach out to law enforcement officers, district attorney generals, juveniles judges, to see how we can all work together to solve these problems,” Henry told reporters after the meeting.
For the most part, the panel seemed pleased with the steps Henry is taking to turn the agency around.
“This was going to be a hearing of reckoning, but it’s turned out to be a hearing of solutions,” said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner of Nashville.