At a legislative hearing, the head of the Department of Human Services Tuesday defended the agency’s operation of a food service program that has faced scrutiny following the release of several audits.
Justin P. Wilson, the state’s comptroller, began a meeting convened by the Senate Investigations and Oversight subcommittee and likened the Department of Human Services to someone struggling with alcoholism.
“You can’t really solve a problem until you acknowledge that the problem is really there,” Wilson said, after ending a nearly 40-minute presentation outlining a series of audits his office performed that revealed significant problems with the department’s handling of food programs that provide nutritious food to children at risk for hunger.
Wilson argued that Human Services was currently operating with a handful of controls providing oversight of its operations, which he said were akin to having a building having just a few smoke detectors. Wilson suggested the department needed an entire sprinkler system in order to move forward.
During her portion of the presentation, Commissioner Raquel Hatter pushed back against the allegations that the department didn’t believe there were problems.
“On some level, we have been misinterpreted or misunderstood,” she said, adding that Human Services has made improvements on a variety of its functions, including an increase in the number of meals provided in food service programs and bolstering accuracy and timeliness of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
While facing questions from Sen. Bo Watson about the fact that the comptroller found issues with the department’s handling of the program dating back to 2011, Hatter told the panel that they have made improvements in recent years, while pointing out that the job requirement for the person handling the program has changed.
The panel also heard from Monica Jones, who is overseeing the food program, who vowed to work to correct the agency’s handling of the initiative.
The hearing was called in response to three critical audits released over a two-week span by the Tennessee comptroller late last month. One audit released March 29 questioned $11.4 million in spending by DHS, most of that on its food programs. It described multiple violations of federal regulations and basic accounting practices. These included a lack of documentation for monies spent on food, a lack of verification that the agencies DHS contracts with are eligible to participate in the food program and staffing shortages at DHS that threatened its ability to provide oversight and prevent potential fraud, waste and abuse.