Former Gov. Phil Bredesen fired Michael Miller as commissioner of the Department of Children’s Services in 2003 and named another commissioner, Gina Lodge of the Department of Human Services, to serve as his interim successor.
About a decade later, we find Gov. Bill Haslam accepting the resignation of DCS Commissioner Kate O’Day and naming another commissioner, Jim Henry of the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, to serve as her interim successor.
A clear distinction, of course, is that Bredesen fired his first DCS commissioner, saying he had been unable to provide “the cultural change” that was needed and as illustrated by various critical reports with a lawsuit involved and media attention.
Haslam’s first DCS commissioner resigned on her own violation, acknowledging she had become a “distraction” because of various critical reports with a lawsuit involved and media attention.
Haslam says he did not ask for the resignation and thinks O’Day had done “a lot of good things” to improve the department. Well, maybe.
O’Day helped prepare a DCS budget for the coming fiscal year that executes what comes across as a turnaround from two prior Haslam budgets. Until the plan outlined in his Jan. 28 “state of the state” speech, DCS had been in cutback mode along with most other state agencies.
The new budget will add 62 caseworker positions — a contrast with continuing cutbacks elsewhere in state jobs — with higher pay for those already there and meeting some new qualification criteria. There is still some DCS cutting, but the department nets $6.7 million in new money and more workers, presumably where they are most needed.
After Lodge did her stint as interim DCS commissioner under Bredesen, the former governor brought in Viola Miller, who had run the equivalent of DCS in Kentucky, to take the job on a long-term basis. By most accounts, Miller was a hard-nosed administrator but got the department on track toward resolving its long-running problems.
In 2010, the last year of Bredesen’s reign, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, for example, issued a report declaring DCS had “improved drastically” since a highly critical 2002 review. Some child advocacy groups said nice things, too, and a lawsuit was resolved with a condition that the department’s doings be monitored.
State Rep. Sherry Jones, D-Nashville, perhaps the Legislature’s best-known advocate on children’s issues, says she often clashed with Miller, “but at least she listened” and O’Day did not. Jones says DCS staffers told her that Miller considered Jones “our worst enemy” in the Legislature because of critical questioning and at the same time “our best friend” because of Jones’ willingness to support DCS in areas where she thought they were right.
Jones served on the Select Oversight Committee on Children and Youth, which focused on DCS and which was abolished by the Republican-controlled Legislature last year.
The monitor making reports in accord with the Bredesen-era lawsuit settlement reported last year that, after a period of significant improvements, reform efforts had lost momentum in 2011. Which, of course, was when the Haslam administration took over. In fairness, the report blamed many of the difficulties on the department’s new computer system, authorized under the Bredesen administration.
The department was also the target of a new lawsuit, brought by The Tennessean with other media outlets joining in, over access to records of children who died after DCS involvement.
The hope, of course, is that history will further repeat itself and DCS will be back on track toward improving things.
Henry, the interim commissioner, is respected as an advocate in the general area and as a man with very good people skills. Indeed, the governor might consider removing the “interim” from his title. He had a relatively warm reception at a Senate Health Committee hearing last week, appearing after O’Day resigned the day before she was to appear before the panel under what probably would have been considerably more hostile circumstances. Maybe Haslam will find his own new, improved second DCS commissioner.
Either way, it’s a shame that something wasn’t learned from DCS history to avoid all this.