The Tennessean reports that two executive-level Department of Children’s Services staffers — whose duties at the agency included reviewing the deaths of children — were fired Tuesday. Dismissed were:
• Debbie Miller, 61, executive director of family and child well-being, who oversaw medical and behavioral health and education for children in custody and independent living for teens that age out of DCS custody; and
• Alan Hall, 47, executive director of performance and quality improvement, who oversaw department policies, licensing and accountability, and who led the department’s internal audit.
Department spokeswoman Molly Sudderth said Miller’s position was eliminated as part of a restructuring. Hall will be replaced. The Tennessean asked why Hall was dismissed, and Sudderth did not give an answer.
In a Tennessean review of personnel files in October, neither Hall nor Miller had any reprimands. Information about their service since then was not immediately available, Sudderth said.
Reached by phone, Hall said Wednesday he was “certainly shocked” at his firing.
“I’m evaluating my options,” he said.
Miller did not return calls.
The firings are the latest for a department that has seen a high level of executive turnover since Commissioner Kate O’Day took charge in January 2011. The Tennessean reported in November that more than 70 executive-level employees had been terminated during her time — more employees, and a higher rate of dismissals, than all but a handful of other state government departments.
By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Tennessee Department of Children’s Service has been reporting to a federal court for more than a decade on how it is handling foster care, yet it faces no such scrutiny of its handling of children suffering from abuse or neglect.
The state reports that 120 children investigated by the Department of Children’s Services after reports of abuse or neglect died between 2009 and 2011. There were 31 more deaths during the first half of 2012, DCS says.
DCS refuses to divulge anything but bare details about the deaths, such as the child’s age, gender and home county. It won’t release what actions it took in the cases. DCS even keeps the names of the children who died secret.
The agency’s refusal to disclose its case records to the public is being challenged in court by a coalition of 12 news media organizations, led by The Tennessean newspaper. A hearing on the challenge is set for Tuesday.
A public records lawsuit by the coalition seeks to open the files on the children who died, arguing that “the public has a strong interest in knowing what actions DCS took — or failed to take — in order to protect them.” The group that filed the challenge includes The Associated Press and newspapers and broadcasters in Chattanooga, Knoxville, Memphis and Nashville.
Commissioner Kate O’Day has said privacy concerns about the children are the motivation for keeping details about their cases secret. The confidentiality requirements are “not to protect DCS, they’re really to protect the families,” she told The Tennessean.
Gov. Bill Haslam has said he agrees with the legal analysis by state attorneys that Tennessee isn’t required to release detailed information in the event of child deaths.
That stance is in contrast to other states, where judges, lawmakers and state officials have decided greater transparency improves child welfare agency performance or is required by public records laws.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A task force on child protection wants more consistency in how reports of abuse are investigated and decisions about criminal charges are made.
The Joint Task Force on Children’s Justice/Child Sexual Abuse is putting finishing touches on its report to the governor and legislators. The Tennessean (http://tnne.ws/TOAnx3 ) reported the group met Thursday to talk about how forceful and detailed the language of their final report should be if they expect to get results.
The task force has about 40 members that include Department of Children’s Services officials, doctors, law enforcement representatives, attorneys and child advocates.
The proposal includes dozens of recommendations.
“When it comes to the plan, everybody (here) already agrees with it, so the legislators are more likely to support it,” said Bonnie Beneke, task force chairwoman and executive director of Tennessee Children’s Advocacy Centers.
The consistency the group is seeking relates to Child Protective Investigative Teams. The teams exist in each county and include a detective, a prosecutor, a DSC staff member and a juvenile court representative. The task force found enforcement varies widely from county to county.
“There is a huge need for them to be attending trainings at the same time,” said Emily Cecil, CAC training coordinator. “We have this law that it has to happen, but there’s nobody to enforce it, and there’s no penalties if it’s not done correctly.”
A draft of the report due next month states there must be better communication between DCS and law enforcement and community service organizations across the state.
The department has begun a program called “In Home Tennessee” which is aimed at improving communication between DCS and community service agencies. There are 12 DCS regions and seven have initiated the program. The quarterly meetings of the task force have also given the department an avenue to update others on ongoing efforts.
Marjahna Hart, a DCS director in the Office of Child Safety, relayed DSC Commissioner Kate O’Day’s request for additional funding to hire more caseworkers and raise caseworker salaries.
By Lucas Johnson, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A Democratic lawmaker who played a role in the formation of the embattled Tennessee Department of Children’s Services says the agency’s commissioner shouldn’t be blamed for deeply rooted problems that she inherited.
The agency recently released information showing that 31 children it had investigated died during the first six months of 2012. The figures were provided after repeated requests by another Democratic lawmaker.
Critics want DCS Commissioner Kate O’Day, who was appointed last year by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, to be replaced.
But Rep. John Deberry of Memphis, who has criticized DCS over the years, told The Associated Press that O’Day isn’t to blame, but rather many of the workers she oversees. He said a solution would be to “clean house.”
“I know that there are mitigating circumstances to some of the deaths,” said Deberry, who cast the deciding vote that got legislation out of a House committee to form the agency in 1996.
Democratic state Rep. Sherry Jones has been waiting more than two months for the Department of Children’s Services to tell her how many children have died this year while in state custody or while subject to an abuse investigation, reports The Tennessean.
DCS has come under increasing scrutiny for its inability to perform basic agency functions, such as making payments to foster parents, keeping accurate records and properly documenting social workers’ response times to incidents of child abuse, reports The Tennessean.
“I know these deaths are occurring all across the state because they’re reported in the media,” Jones said. “But the state should be able to tell us how many children have died who were in their care or who they had a report on.
“The information that I asked for should be available every single day through the department. It’s ridiculous, totally ridiculous, that it takes so long to get information from them.”
DCS spokeswoman Molly Sudderth said Monday that the agency continued to work on gathering the information, but she did not specify when it would be available. “We will work to get this to you as soon as possible,” she said.
…A new $37 million computer system intended to track each child who has contact with DCS has been cited as a failure in keeping tabs on information the agency is legally required to keep.
…A March report issued by the Tennessee comptroller’s office criticized department officials, including its chief, Commissioner Kathryn “Kate” O’Day, for going forward with the system in the first place despite being aware it had “significant problems.”
News release from governor’s office:
NASHVILLE – Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and First Lady Crissy Haslam today announced the governor will issue an executive order refocusing and restructuring the Governor’s Children’s Cabinet, which they will co-chair.
This makes the Governor’s Children’s Cabinet the only one in the country co-chaired by both a governor and the spouse, according to the National Forum for Youth Investment, and the group through collaboration and cooperation will create a comprehensive strategy focused on issues such as children’s physical and mental health, education, safety and overall well-being.
The group also will work to coordinate, streamline and enhance the state’s efforts in providing resources and services to Tennessee’s children.
“An old proverb says the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago and the second best time is now,” Haslam said. “Providing the best services and creating the best opportunities for Tennessee’s children to succeed must be a priority. By bringing together the Children’s Cabinet, Crissy and I want to share policy, coordinate, collaborate and cooperate so the future for Tennessee kids is as bright as possible.”
The Haslams will co-chair the group consisting of commissioners from the departments of Children’s Services, Education, Health, Human Services and Mental Health as well as the TennCare director and any other individuals the governor may deem appropriate. This executive order will replace Executive Order No. 7 from the previous administration.
“Bill and I are grateful that so many people have been working hard to serve children and families in our state,” Crissy Haslam said. “The Children’s Cabinet is a wonderful opportunity for state agencies and stakeholders to work together toward a common goal of improving the future for Tennessee’s children.”
The Children’s Cabinet will be directed by Jude White, who brings a mixture of experience in judicial and private law practice, non-profit management and state government services. White recently served as the executive director of Renewal House, a local non-profit agency in the Nashville community serving families in recovery from addiction. She worked formerly as assistant general counsel for the Tennessee Department of Children Services, after practicing law and serving as a judicial clerk.