Category Archives: children’s issues

TN law on prosecuting drug-addicted mothers backed by drug-addicted mother

Nashville Public Radio looks to Northeast Tennessee in reporting that some of those involved in enforcement of a Tennessee law allowing criminal prosecution of mothers who have a child suffering the effects of her drug addiction think the laws is not necessarily a bad thing.

After less than two years in effect, the controversial law must be renewed, or it will expire. While the measure has drawn worldwide disdain from women’s health and civil liberty advocates, some of the women who’ve been charged say the threat of jail-time was a wake-up call.

“If I didn’t go through what I went through, I’d probably be down that same road right now,” says 26-year-old mother Kim Walker of Johnson City. “But now I’m a totally different person. And I’m on the good road, not the bad road.”

Last year, Walker went into labor at home. It’s hard to know whether the drugs she was on had anything to do with this, but the baby came so quickly, she gave birth in her bathroom.

Walker tells the story like it was no big deal. “One push and he was out,” she says.

“My husband delivered him. Didn’t know he was drug exposed until we got to the hospital,” she says. “When we got to the hospital, they took him straight from my hospital room. I didn’t get to see him, didn’t get to hold him, nothing.”

He spent 28 days in the neonatal intensive care unit, withdrawing from the painkillers Walker was taking illegally.

Walker had to take a drug test, which she failed. Then she was charged with assault. But like most women, she chose treatment in order to avoid conviction.

Rehab was a rocky road. There’s been a relapse along the way. But in late October, Walker gave birth to another son — Jack — this time, drug-free.

…Lisa Tipton falls somewhere in the middle. “I don’t feel the law is perfect,” she says. “I don’t feel the law is necessarily the solution…but we were absolutely bombarded.”

Tipton runs a non-profit treatment center called Families Free in Johnson City. This part of Northeast Tennessee is the epicenter of the state’s — and even the country’s — problem with neonatal abstinence syndrome.

The rural region has had — by far — the most cases of NAS, the technical name for when an infant withdraws from opioids…. Tipton recognizes that Tennessee’s law has a bad rap among women’s health advocates and civil liberty groups. But she says she’s not hearing great alternatives from the naysayers.

“I would really invite them to go in our area, into the trailer parks where they may be living with several family members who also use drugs and sometimes abuse them, and their children as well. To go into the jails and talk to the women whose lives have been destroyed by drugs and whose children are being raised by somebody else,” Tipton says. “Help come up with some very real-life and real-world solutions that are going to change the lives of these women.”

Norris leads Tennesseans at national juvenile jailing conference

News release from Sen. Mark Norris, via Senate Republican Caucus
AUSTIN, TX-November 9, 2015-On the heels of new data showing a reduction in the number of youth incarcerated in Tennessee, Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) led a team of Tennessee officials to a summit in Austin, Texas sponsored by the Council of State Government’s (CSG) Justice Center and the MacArthur Foundation. The group was joined by leaders in other states on Monday and Tuesday to address the next big challenge they all share: reducing the likelihood youth will be rearrested and end up in the adult criminal justice system.

Other Tennesseans at the summit include Supreme Court Justice Holly Kirby, Shelby County Juvenile Court Judge Dan Michael, and Deputy Commissioner of Juvenile Justice Debbie Mitchell.

Tennessee’s juvenile incarceration rate has decreased by 76.5% from 1997-2013, according to new numbers from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP). Despite the reduction, there’s been less progress ensuring youth released from facilities or under community supervision succeed by staying crime free, achieving academically and getting jobs. At “Improving Outcomes for Youth in the Juvenile Justice System: A 50-State Forum,” a two-day event, states are given the opportunity to collaborate, learn from each others’ experiences and understand the latest research from national experts.
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DCS expects to escape fed oversight in 2017

By Travis Loller, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — After nearly 15 years of federal oversight, the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services expects to meet all the requirements of a 2001 settlement agreement by the end of the calendar year.

If DCS can meet that goal and maintain compliance for a full year, officials could then ask U.S. District Judge Todd Campbell to end the federal supervision. The earliest that would happen would be 2017.

The settlement came after the court found serious problems with the department’s treatment of foster care children. It sets out a series of requirements for the department, including reasonable caseloads, sufficient training for case workers, and a quick response to reports of abuse or neglect.

At a progress hearing Monday, both sides agreed the department is about 90 percent of the way there.
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A wish list from TN Commission on Children

Citing data that shows Tennessee behind most other state in child well being, the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth has made a series of recommendations to Gov. Bill Haslam and the state Legislature.

From The Tennessean:

Among the wide-ranging recommendations for next year’s legislative session is the passage of Insure Tennessee, to broaden health care access for children and their parents. Haslam’s Medicaid expansion failed in both a special session and a regular legislative session earlier this year. Its future passage remains unlikely.

The commission, whose members are appointed by the governor, also recommended restoring programs cut in previous lean-budget years.

Among them are cuts to a home visiting program and Healthy Start, two programs administered by the Department of Heath. The programs were cut by $2 million this year and last year. They provide in-home visits to expectant mothers and new parents.

“Research shows quality home visiting programs reduce child abuse and neglect and infant mortality, and result in increased immunization rates and parental knowledge of children’s developmental needs,” a letter from commission Executive Director Linda O’Neal to the governor said.

The commission also urged the governor to create alternatives to “youth prisons” operated by the Department of Children’s Services. In 2014, two teens committed suicide within weeks of one another at the Mountain View Development Center in east Tennessee. A few months later, a riot, assaults and escapes erupted at Woodland Hills Development Center in Nashville. DCS has since added more community programs for delinquent youths, but “now would be an optimal time … to reduce or eliminate ‘youth prisons,’ ” the commission noted.

The commission also supports continued funding of pre-K programs in the state, citing research that shows better outcomes in test scores, high school graduation rates, earnings and reduced teen pregnancies when children attend quality preschool programs, particularly low-income children.

Troubled DHS children’s food program gets legislators’ attention

State Senate Finance Committee members Friday questioned Human Services Commissioner Raquel Hatter on problems plaguing an $80 million food program for poor children that could potentially cost taxpayers millions in fraud and misspending, according to The Tennessean.

Hatter testified that she took responsibility for oversight of the program, which feeds 80,000 Tennessee children during the school year and 42,000 children each day during summer months, but noted its problems long predated her taking office in 2011.

But Tennessee Comptroller Justin Wilson told lawmakers that auditors have found that problems with the program have only worsened in recent years.

The hearing was convened by lawmakers after a critical audit by the comptroller’s office and investigative reports by The Tennessean showed waste, fraud and abuse in a program designed to distribute snacks and meals to children living in poverty. Some 500,000 children in the state are at risk for food insecurity, creating a need that Tennessee officials, like those in many other states, have not yet been able to meet.

Hatter noted that there are weaknesses in the design of the program, which is funded purely with federal dollars. Other states have had similar challenges with fraud and waste in their food programs, she said. The program is due to be re-authorized by Congress, and Hatter said state officials will take the opportunity to weigh in on design changes.

She emphasized that the problems have not hindered getting meals to children.

“Children in Tennessee are still being fed,” she said. “It’s important to note that.”

In an annual audit of all state agencies, the comptroller found 65 deficiencies. Twenty-one of them were within the Department of Human Services — and 14 of those were in the food program.

…”My sense is we are looking for a solution we should have had before now,” said (Senate Majority Leader Mark) Norris, who urged Hatter to redouble her efforts to improve the program and report back on her progress.

Sen. Doug Overbey, a Maryville Republican, asked Hatter to keep a focus on both continuing to feed children and improving oversight.

“Let’s also focus on maintaining the integrity of the program, because taxpayers expect nothing less,” he said. “I hope this hearing will be a motivating factor.”

Democrats seek committee hearing on troubles in child nutrition program

News release from Rep. John Ray Clemmons
NASHVILLE, TN—Today, State Representative John Ray Clemmons (Nashville) joined his fellow Democratic members on the Joint Government Operations Committee to call on the Republican chairmen of the joint committee to request the appearance of Department of Human Resources Commissioner Raquel Hatter and Deputy Commissioner Petrina Jones-Jesz on Wednesday, August 19, 2015. Representative Clemmons and his colleagues’ joint request stems from recently reported allegations that children in Tennessee are being placed at risk for hunger because of a lack of leadership at the Tennessee Department of Human Services.

“If any of these allegations have merit, our state has failed the very children who rely on us the most, and this is unacceptable,” said Representative John Ray Clemmons. “I am certainly not going to sit on my hands and hope for leadership out of this Republican administration while kids across Tennessee go hungry.” Representative Clemmons added, “As one of the only remaining oversight bodies in the state legislature, our joint committee has a duty to provide leadership and oversight where it is otherwise sorely lacking. I, for one, intend to ask the hard questions and get to the bottom of these deeply troubling allegations.”

The reported allegations include fraud, greed and lack of oversight over an $80 million program that is, in some cases, the only source of nutritious food for 42,000 children during summer months and feeds 180,000 children during the school year.

The Democrats’ serious concerns are heightened in light of the enactment of SB63 (Kelsey/E. Smith) which permits local boards of education to refuse to accept federal funding for school food programs without penalty. No provisions were enacted to address how the state or local governments would fill the budgetary hole for these lost revenues to sustain operations.

The Democratic members of the Joint Government Operations Committee are Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris, House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart and State Representative John Ray Clemmons.

Note: Most recent previous post HERE. The referenced SB63 was approved by the Senate 28-3 and by the House 68-19. Bill info page is HERE.

TN still ranked 36th for child well-being

News release from Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth
Nashville –– The Annie E. Casey Foundation 2015 KIDS COUNT® Data Book released today shows Tennessee ranks 36th in the country for child well-being, the same as in 2014.

The KIDS COUNT Data Book ranks child well-being across four domains with Tennessee ranking 38th in Economic Well-Being, 36th in Education, 30th in Health, and 37th in Family and Community. The state improved or remained the same on 11 of 16 measures, while conditions worsened on five indicators.

A bright spot for the state was its ranking of 20th in the Education indicator of high school students graduating on time.

“Good public policies improve outcomes for Tennessee children,” said Linda O’Neal, executive director of the state’s KIDS COUNT® affiliate, the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth. “Requiring children to stay in school until age 18 improves high school graduation rates and the percent of children who live in families where the household head has a high school diploma, both indicators where Tennessee scored better than the national average.”
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‘Extremely troubling’ audit: $732K misspent in feeding hungry children

Tennessee Department of Human Services officials signed off on more than $732,000 in questionable payments to ABC Nutrition Services during a five-year period, reports The Tennessean. The nonprofit agency, operated by Vivian Parker and her two daughters, operates a food program in rural West Tennessee intended to feed hungry children.

Parker’s salary plus bonus topped $100,000 last year. She was also reimbursed for the cost of remodeling her home office in Camden, adding a new deck and widening her driveway. Thousands more were spent on other perks: meals, hotel movies, late credit card fees and cable and internet services.

…That agency wasn’t the only one with questionable billing records discovered in the Department of Human Services-administered food programs responsible for stewarding the expenditures of close to $80 million to feed needy children and some adults.

Auditors with the state Comptroller’s office found that some state contractors billed for double the meals they were authorized to provide, failed to file proper paperwork, mysteriously lost paperwork when auditors arrived to inspect them, failed to ensure qualified children received meals and incorrectly calculated administrative expenses owed to them. All of those billing issues added up to $1.8 million in questionable payments last year in just the small sample of agencies auditors reviewed. In 2013, the questioned costs reached $4.3 million.

In some cases, children who were supposed to be fed may not ever have received a meal.

“DHS management had not ensured that critical controls and effective practices were in place and operating as needed,” the audit found. A lack of oversight “threatens the integrity of the programs.”

“The results of this investigation are extremely troubling,” Comptroller Justin Wilson said more pointedly about the failure by DHS to adequately monitor ABC Nutrition Services, which is located 90 miles west of Nashville in Benton County — a region where more than one in four children live in poverty.

“Hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars have been misspent by this organization over a five-year period,” Wilson said. “This underscores the importance of effective program monitoring and oversight.”

It is a finding that DHS officials strongly disagree with, even as they acknowledge that fraud and abuse remain a major challenge in the two federal food programs they oversee.

Bonnie Hommrich named new DCS commissioner

News release from the governor’s office:
NASHVILLE – Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam today announced Bonnie Hommrich as the new commissioner of the Department of Children’s Services (DCS).

Hommrich has served as deputy commissioner for child programs at DCS since 2004. Her responsibilities have included the areas of child protective services, foster care, adoptions, community juvenile justice and independent living.

Hommrich, 68, has also had oversight over the Brian A. settlement agreement, participated in accreditation by the Council on Accreditation, supported implementation of the federal IV-E waiver and performance-based contracting with key private provider agencies.

“Bonnie has dedicated her entire career to helping children and families,” Haslam said. “She has experience on the front lines of social work as well as in senior level positions where she has analyzed and interpreted complex information, situations and issues. I am grateful for her willingness to serve as commissioner and to have her depth of knowledge and expertise leading the department.”
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TN in line with push to keep state custody children in family setting

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee is making a greater effort to place children in state custody in family settings.

A new policy report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation calls on child welfare agencies to increase efforts to place youth removed from their homes with relatives or foster families.

State officials and child welfare advocates held a news conference at the state Capitol this week to discuss the report.

Department of Children’s Services Commissioner Jim Henry said 81 percent of children currently in state custody are in residential facilities, an increase from 61 percent in 2001.

Linda O’Neal is executive director of the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth. She said children do better in all aspects of their lives when they’re connected to a strong and nurturing family.

Note: The Tennessee data page from the report is HERE.