Tag Archives: Children

Fed funding at risk under new DUI law for juveniles

By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper on Friday criticized Tennessee Republicans for changes to the state’s underage drunken driving law that could lead to a loss of $60 million in federal highway funding.

Under the new law, which took effect on July 1, the allowable blood alcohol content for 18- to 20-year-old drivers was raised to 0.08 percent, but offenders now face the same level penalties as adult drivers convicted of drunken driving.

Federal guidelines suggest a strict 0.02 percent allowable blood alcohol content for drivers under the legal drinking age. The new Tennessee law splits this group into two: 16- and 17-year-olds are still subject to the 0.02 limit, while those 18-20 now have a higher allowable limit, but with the tougher punishments.

Cooper said the change runs afoul of federal standards for underage drivers, meaning that the state could stand to lose 8 percent of its federal highway funding, or $60 million per year.

“This must be a mistake,” Cooper said. “No one wants more drunk drivers on the road. State leaders should act immediately and comply with a zero tolerance policy.” Continue reading

Judge pushes oversight of juvenile offenders to age 25

Young criminal offenders would be under oversight of the state’s juvenile justice system until they reach age 25 instead of 19 under a proposal being pushed by Shelby County Juvenile Court Judge Dan Michael, according to the Commercial Appeal.

“What it would do is it would give us longer with those kids who are on the fence, who probably haven’t hurt anyone other than scared them to death, who we know may need another two years. That if we don’t hold them for those two years, they’re liable to go out and do something even worse,” said Michael.

…”The law currently says juvenile court should have jurisdiction until 19 years of age. I’m taking out 19 and plugging in 25. It changes nothing else but the age.”

But that one word change in the bill would create sweeping changes in the juvenile court system if passed. Juveniles who commit a crime before their 18th birthday would have the ability to remain in the juvenile court system until they turn 25, depending on the crime. However, a judge could still file a motion to transfer the juvenile to adult court if the offense warranted it, Michael said.

Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich said she would need to see the bill’s language to better understand Michael’s proposal, but changing the age of jurisdiction would prompt a long, complicated process.

“First of all, if you were to increase the number of individuals that would be monitored and supervised by (Department of Children’s Services), they don’t have the resources to do that,” Weirich said. “That would take additional funds, additional personnel…”

Weirich was more open to the idea of blended sentencing, where a juvenile court imposes both juvenile and adult sanctions simultaneously, with the adult sentence suspended. If the offender completes the juvenile sentence without incident, oftentimes they do not have to serve the adult sentence. If the juvenile violates the conditions of the first sentence, he or she may be required to serve the adult sentence.

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.
Continue reading

AP story on handcuffing of kids at Murfreesboro school

By Sheila Burke, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A police commander in Tennessee has been placed on administrative leave as a new report raises even more questions about how children between the ages of 9 and 12 came to be arrested, with some of them handcuffed, at their elementary school last month.

The report released Thursday raises questions about why Murfreesboro Police were so determined, even as at least one of the department’s own officers raised repeated concerns about the plan to arrest the kids at Hobgood Elementary School.

The arrests have caused a furor in Murfreesboro and beyond.

The department’s review of the incident deals with the arrest of four children at the school April 15. Two of the four juveniles arrested at school were handcuffed, the report said. However, it did not say why. One, the report said, was handcuffed and transported to juvenile detention. Police took the cuffs off one before placing the child in the back of the patrol car.

There were six other children named in juvenile court petitions, said Kyle Evans, a spokesman for the Murfreesboro Police Department. The other six were all at least age 9, Evans said, and none of them was handcuffed. Those children were either brought in by their parents or picked up by police without incident, he said.
Continue reading

Comptroller: Operator of child nutrition program stole $162,165

News release from state comptroller’s office
A special investigation by the Tennessee Comptroller’s Office has found that Jeannette Jives-Nealy stole $162,165 in federal grant funds. Ms. Jives-Nealy operated Kingdom Dominion Worldwide Ministries, Inc., in Memphis, TN, and received grant funds through the Summer Food Service Program for Children, a U.S. Department of Agriculture program administered by the Tennessee Department of Human Services (DHS). This investigation was completed in conjunction with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

During June and July 2014, Jeanette Jives-Nealy received money for the purpose of providing free meals to children living in economically disadvantaged areas during the summer months. Although Ms. Jives-Nealy claimed she fed thousands of children, investigators determined that all of the money was converted to personal use.

Ms. Jives-Nealy received the grant funds even though they she did not supply any credible documentation to DHS verifying that they were actually acquiring, preparing, and providing food to children. When state auditors asked to review documentation, Ms. Jives-Nealy claimed the records had been destroyed by flooding that had occurred earlier in the day. In October 2014, DHS issued a letter to Kingdom Dominion demanding a full repayment of the grant amount.

On April 26, 2016, Jeannette Jives-Nealy was indicted by the Shelby County Grand Jury on one count of theft over $60,000.

“Whenever a program allows for cash advances, it’s important that program administrators carefully monitor how the money is being used,” Comptroller Justin P. Wilson said. “It is disappointing to learn that such a large sum of public money could be provided without any credible documents to support the feeding of children. The victims in this case include not only taxpayers, but the thousands of children who may have otherwise been fed.”

Note: The full report is HERE. And Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, has sent out a press release declaring the theft would never have taken place if a bill (SB1472) he successfully sponsored this year (along with Rep. Tim Wirgau, R-Buchanan) had been in effect at the time. It’s below. Continue reading

Mother of school bus wreck victim ‘at peace’ with enactment of new law

From the News Sentinel:
The school bus crash that took three lives in Knoxville helped bring a new law banning use of electronic devices by school bus drivers.

“It makes me feel … at peace,” said Sharon Glasper of the new law. Her 7-year-old daughter, Seraya, died in the Dec. 2, 2014 Knox County Schools bus crash that killed another student and a teacher’s assistant.

Gov. Bill Haslam signed into law Thursday the bill that increases the fine 20-fold and added jail time for texting while driving a school bus with students on board.

“Texting and driving is a very serious matter,” Glasper said Friday.

James Davenport, 48, of Mascot, was hauling 22 children on a bus from Chilhowee Intermediate School on that day in 2014 that Seraya died. Knoxville police said Davenport, who has since died, was texting while driving.

Davenport’s bus 44 veered across multiple lanes of traffic and slammed into bus 57 that carried 18 Sunnyview Primary School students and a teacher’s aide. The impact ripped open the front of Davenport’s bus and toppled bus 57 onto its side.

Zykia Burns, 6, and teacher’s aide Kimberly Riddle, 46, also died in the crash.

“We put our kids in other people’s hands, riding the school bus,” Glasper said. “You wouldn’t ever imagine that your kid won’t come back.”

Note: The bill is SB1596, sponsored by Sen. Becky Massey and Rep. Eddie Smith, both Knoxville Republicans.