Category Archives: children

Feds OK revised TN DUI law for juveniles

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The National Highway Traffic Administration has confirmed that Tennessee is back in compliance with federal zero-tolerance standards for drunken drivers under the legal drinking age.

Republican Gov. Bill Haslam hastily called a special legislative session last week to repeal a new state law that threatened to cost the state 8 percent, or $60 million, in federal road money.

The repeal of the law means that the state no longer stands to lose the money starting on Oct. 1.

Sponsors of the original legislation said it aimed to give tougher penalties to all drivers over age 18. But the law also sought to set the maximum allowable blood alcohol content at 0.08 percent for those drivers. The federal standard for drivers under age 21 is 0.02 percent.

Legislators repeal DUI foul-up to save federal funding

By Eric Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee lawmakers on Wednesday repealed an underage drunken driving law that threatened to cost the state $60 million in road money by running afoul of federal zero-tolerance standards.

The Senate passed the measure 31-1, and the House later followed suit on an 85-2 vote despite several complaints among Republican lawmakers about the federal government interfering in state business.

“Our own federal government is blackmailing us,” said Republican Rep. David Alexander of Winchester. Continue reading

Sunday column: On the foul-up blame game

The special legislative session that convenes Monday to fix a $60 million mistake has inspired a political blame game that will likely continue with speeches to be made while giving rubber-stamp approval to the required fix.

There is, indeed, fault to be found in the situation. But the game participants seem to be ignoring a lot of it, maybe including the fundamental problem.

Democrats have taken the lead in finger pointing, starting when the U.S. Department of Transportation pointed out last month that a bill approved in April lowered the legal presumption for drunken driving from .08 blood alcohol content to .02 for people aged 18 to 21. Continue reading

Apparent Armstrong successor owes child support

Rodney “Rick” Staples, who has been chosen to replace Rep. Joe Armstrong as the Democratic party nominee in House District 15, is involved in a legal dispute over child support payments, according to Nashville Post Politics (crediting much of the Post post to a Knoxville Mercury story).

Armstrong is barred from running for public office because of his conviction earlier this month on a felony charge of filing false income tax return. Staples defeated former Knoxville Mayor Daniel Brown to become successor nominee in the executive committee vote and he now needs only defeat perennial candidate Pete Drew, running as an independent with no Republican on the ballot, in the November election.

An arrest warrant was issued for Roderick “Rick” Staples in March after he failed to show for court in a case involving more than $8,200 in past-due child support, court records show. The warrant was rescinded in June, when Staples’ court-appointed attorney issued a $3,000 check on his behalf. A new court date was set for Oct. 5.

“I know I missed a court date. I just had the wrong date,” Staples says. “I look forward to serving the 15th District as their state Representative, and one great aside to that is, I’ll have an assistant to help manage my schedule.”

… Knox County Democratic Party Chairman Cameron Brooks says he was aware of Staples’ ongoing child-support case. He says he thinks everyone on the 15-person committee considering the House nomination was also aware, though it wasn’t discussed openly during a meeting and vote on his appointment on Thursday, Aug. 18. Staples beat out two other top contenders for the nomination, including Knoxville City Councilman Daniel Brown and LeTonia Armstrong, who is Joe Armstrong’s wife.

“We’re standing behind him as a party and we’re looking forward to the November election and to seeing him elected to the Legislature,” Brooks says.

Staples expects the court case to be resolved next year when his estranged son — whom we’re not naming because he’s a minor — turns 18 and graduates from high school.

Haslam: Special DUI session may be necessary to save $60M fed funding

Gov. Bill Haslam says he doesn’t want to call a special September session of the legislature to fix the state’s drunk driving laws, but the possibility of losing $60 million if Tennessee doesn’t might just force him to do so.
Further from WPLN:

The problem is the state’s limit for blood alcohol content for 18- to 20-year-olds. Federal highway authorities say it has to be .02, but Tennessee lawmakers raised it to .08 earlier this year.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration told state officials last week that it will dock Tennessee’s highway funds if the state doesn’t bring the limit back down by Oct. 1. Haslam says the warning has his attention.

“One way or another, we’ve got to figure out a way to not do that. I mean, $60 million is a lot of money.”

State lawmakers say they didn’t know about the federal government’s policy when they raised the blood alcohol limit for young adults. They were actually trying to toughen the penalties for underage DUIs by adding jail time.

Haslam hopes to convince federal authorities to hold off until lawmakers reconvene in January. He says Tennessee’s infrastructure needs are too big to punish the state for an oversight, but he would go along with a special session if that’s what it takes to keep the money.

Haslam was also asked by reporters Wednesday whether a special session, if one were called, could include a debate over expelling state Rep. Jeremy Durham… Durham lost in the primary earlier this month but remains in line to receive a state pension if allowed to serve out his term.

The governor said he favors limiting the scope to transportation funding, but no decision has been made about whether to include discussion about Durham. Continue reading

DHS reports to legislators on child nutrition program

State Department of State Human Services Commissioner Raquel Hatter told legislators Thursday that the department is making progress in dealing with troubles in an $80 million program that provides food to low-income children.

From The Tennessean:

Hatter on Thursday told lawmakers with the Senate Finance Ways & Means Investigations and Oversight subcommittee that the department had made progress in implementing a new computer system to better track subcontractors who distribute meals and snacks to children. Hatter described how the agency is meeting the requirements of the new law, requiring subcontractors to obtain bonds, running criminal background checks and better training staff.

In previous hearings, Justin Wilson, the state comptroller, has been critical of DHS for not acknowledging the extent of the problems with the program, which is intended to feed children at risk for hunger during the summer months and in after-school and other programs during the school year, when public schools provide free meals.

“You can’t really solve a problem until you acknowledge that the problem is really there,” Wilson said earlier this year. “It’s time for DHS to admit they have a problem.”

On Thursday, Lauren Plunk, the comptroller’s deputy chief of staff, told lawmakers that auditors are reviewing DHS once again as part of an annual audit of all state agencies receiving federal funds and expect to release their report next spring.

“We believe there is a path forward if everybody is willing to understand the fundamental issues at hand,” she said.

Hatter told lawmakers that the agency was “helping to reposition Tennessee’s food program (to) make it stronger than it has ever been in its history.”

TN judge rules on parental rights in same-sex divorce case

In the first ruling of its kind in Tennessee, a Knox County judge on Friday decided that the same-sex spouse of a woman giving birth to a child by artificial insemination has no legal rights or obligations to the baby after a divorce.

Further from the News-Sentinel:

“I believe this is a situation where (Erica Witt) has no biological relationship with this child, has no contractual relationship with this child,” 4th Circuit Court Judge Greg McMillan ruled.

Erica Witt and Sabrina Witt legally wed in Washington, D.C., in April 2014, bought a home in Knoxville and decided to have a child via artificial insemination from an anonymous donor. Sabrina Witt bore a baby girl as a result in January 2015. Because Tennessee did not then recognize same-sex marriage as legal, Erica Witt’s name was not placed on the baby’s birth certificate.

In February, Sabrina Witt filed for divorce. Her attorney, John Harber, contended the only law on Tennessee’s books addressing parenting rights in the case of artificial insemination — enacted in 1977 — makes clear the law applies only to husbands.

“That terminology is not interchangeable,” Harber argued at a hearing Friday.

Tennessee still doesn’t have a law on the books officially recognizing same-sex marriage but is essentially under a mandate to do so due to a U.S. Supreme Court decision last year recognizing the rights of same-sex couples to marry. That ruling did not address divorce or parental rights in a divorce in which neither same-sex partner legally adopted the child they call their own.

Erica Witt’s attorney, Virginia Schwamm, contends the same reasoning used by the nation’s high court in marriage applies in divorce and custody matters.

“The argument that marriage may only consist of a ‘husband’ and a ‘wife’ has been held to be unconstitutional,” Schwamm said. “(Tennessee marriage certificates) still (indicate) male and female, but surely that no longer applies. Just because the statute reads man and woman, this court can interpret the statute in a manner that makes it constitutional.”

…Schwamm called the language of husband and wife outdated and urged McMillan to simply update it via his ruling, just as court clerks’ offices across the state are now revamping all manner of domestic forms, from marriage certificates to divorce petitions, to accommodate same-sex couples.

…But McMillan said it was not up to the courts to enact “social policy” via legal rulings and a strict reading of the artificial insemination law tied his hands in this case.

“I believe as a trial court I am not to plow new ground, but to apply precedent and the law,” McMillan said.

He is allowing Schwamm to appeal, putting the divorce action on hold pending a decision by the Tennessee Court of Appeals on whether to hear the issue.

“Given the novelty of this issue, the court thinks it appropriate to see if the appellate courts want to address this,” he said.

Herenton’s push for state contract to house juvenile offenders gets support

The Shelby County Commission Monday approved, on an 8-2 vote, a resolution urging the state Department of Children’s Service to send juvenile offenders to NewPath Restorative Campuses, a new firm founded by former Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton, reports the Commercial Appeal.

In May, Herenton presented to the commission his plan for NewPath: two 200-bed facilities on 40 acres in Frayser and Millington that would provide wraparound services that include medical and mental health care and educational and vocational training.

There is nothing like it in existence in Tennessee and it “will be an exemplary model for the nation,” Herenton told the commission.

Juvenile offenders from Shelby County are being sent to facilities outside the county, taking with them $17 million in funding spent to care for them, Herenton told the commission in his May presentation.

NewPath, a nonprofit, would hire hundreds of people at each facility.

Herenton said studies have found that when juveniles are housed close to home, they are less likely to offend again.

Commissioners Mark Billingsley and Walter Bailey abstained from the vote.

Bailey noted his opposition to facilities for juveniles and said he didn’t know enough about the proposal.

“On other hand I must say parenthetically, I don’t subscribe to privatizing penal facilities as a rule. You have to do a lot of selling to convince me otherwise,” Bailey said.

Prosecutor drops charges against handcuffed kids

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. (AP) — A Tennessee prosecutor said on Thursday that he intends to dismiss charges against elementary school students who were hauled off to a juvenile facility — some in handcuffs — during the school day and in view of waiting parents.

Murfreesboro police arrested four children at Hobgood Elementary School in April and took them away — two in handcuffs — to a juvenile detention center for allegedly taking part in off-campus neighborhood bullying weeks earlier. Six other children were named in juvenile court petitions stemming from the same incident. All the children were between the ages of 9 and 12.

Parents and community leaders protested the police action, with some demanding that charges be dropped.

Rutherford County prosecutor Jennings Jones said Thursday that’s what he plans to do.

“The state’s intent is not to proceed on the charges,” Jones said. He declined to explain why.

The decision showed that local officials responded to community concerns, said Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee. She praised the police chief, local clergy and community leaders for being responsive and also for pushing for better training and protocols for police working in schools. She called the incident “a teachable moment” not just for Murfreesboro but for all schools and police departments.

“This was a wake-up call that there were some real problems with protocol that need to be addressed,” she said.

Along with the protests, the arrests led to the police chief forming a committee to examine the situation and recommend improvements. The panel found a series of internal conflicts and miscommunications between police and school authorities leading up to the arrests on April 15.

The committee’s report, though partially redacted, laid bare a reality that frustrates many parents in communities across the nation: Officers assigned to schools often have wide leeway when handling juveniles, and the interests of children don’t always come first.

Unlike some other states, Tennessee doesn’t have a minimum age for when a child can be arrested. And under Rutherford County’s rules, children must be brought to the juvenile detention center for even the most minor infractions, unless an officer decides to issue a verbal warning.

The officer who obtained the petition against the children has since been transferred, and a supervisor is on paid leave while under investigation.

AP story on handcuffed kids case and ‘school-to-prison pipeline’

By Sheila Burke, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A Tennessee police officer tried to prevent the arrests that would embroil his department in a national furor over policing in schools, but his colleagues and supervisors refused to change course.

They insisted on arresting children as young as 9 years old at their elementary school and took them away— two in handcuffs — in view of waiting parents to a juvenile detention center as the school day came to an end.

What followed in Murfreesboro, about 30 miles southeast of Nashville, was an unusually public examination of how police handle children suspected of wrongdoing. Amid protests from parents and community leaders, the incident put the new police chief, Karl Durr — who had come from Oregon less than two weeks earlier — in a tough spot.

The chief formed a committee with a mandate to examine the situation. It found a series of internal conflicts and miscommunications between police and school authorities leading up to the arrests on April 15. The committee’s report, though partially redacted, lays bare a reality that frustrates many parents in communities across the nation: Officers assigned to schools often have wide leeway when handling juveniles, and the interests of children don’t always come first.
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