Category Archives: Child Welfare

60% is Still Failing

“…it’s no surprise that departments of children and families have a history of being less than forthcoming with the media, typically citing confidentiality as the roadblock to transparency.[1]

“It seems that it’s become so obvious (Tennessee) DCS is just making stuff up that people have just stopped pretending otherwise.” –Betsy Phillips[2]

“Victimized once by his daughter’s false accusation, plaintiff may have been doubly victimized by overzealous or incompetent actions of (Tennessee) child protection services workers”. – Eidson vs. TNDCS (2007)[3]

I believe the best service to the child is the service closest to the child, and children who are victims of neglect, abuse, or abandonment must not also be victims of bureaucracy. They deserve our devoted attention, not our divided attention.

Kenny Guinn

Tennessee Department of Children’s Services is known throughout the state as the “Department of Coverups.”  There seems to be a disturbing mix of incompetence, corruption, and, yes, coverups.

In 2000, the advocacy group Children’s Rights, on behalf of 9,000 children, sued Tennessee Department of Children’s Services (DCS) because they placed children in group homes and “temporary placements” at a rate (28%) higher than many states.  Children deserved permanency, and TN (DCS) was clearly failing.  The lawsuit was required to motivate (DCS) to stop putting children at such high rates in group homes. DCS “systematically failed to provide Tennessee’s foster children and their families with legally required placements and services.[4]” Because of the lawsuit, DCS agreed to a long list of objectives that would ensure children’s basic rights.

Despite being sued, things didn’t improve.  “Between 2001 and 2003, DCS had three different child welfare commissioners, none of whom had experience running a state child welfare agency for abused and neglected children.[5]”  In 2003, Governor Phil Bredesen tapped Dr. Viola Miller for DCS Commissioner .[6]” Dr. Miller was apparently finally qualified to run the agency.

By November, 2003, Department of Children’s Services had complied with only 24 of 136 demands set forth in the settlement, so an independent administrator was appointed to make sure the settlement was followed. The end of the settlement was extended to 2007.  Department of Children’s Services only had to comply with the settlement agreement for 12 months to get out from under federal oversight.  As of July, 2014, they still haven’t done it.

If all of this sounds theoretical, don’t be fooled.  Real children suffer and die.  Ty’Reke Evans, age 4, died in December, 2011 from blunt force injuries.  His three year-old brother was admitted to the hospital the same day.  He survived. DCS had received three abuse claims by educators and family in the preceding weeks. The claims were assigned to different investigators, and DCS’s computer system didn’t make the connection. One investigator hadn’t entered her report into the computer in a timely fashion.  In fact, it was entered five months after Ty’Reke’s death.

Children died, but Department of Children’s Services didn’t seem be to keeping records even of child deaths.  Or they didn’t want to share them, even with the legislators in Tennessee. State Rep. Sherry Jones asked Department of Children’s Services for records about child fatalities on July 3, 2012.  She was to get the results by mid-August, but hadn’t heard by August 27 and wrote another letter to Frank Mix of Department of Children’s Services. On September 5, 2012, she still hadn’t received the requested records and wrote then Commissioner Kate O’Day.  It’s not clear when, or if, Rep. Jones received those records.

In 2012, a foster- then adoptive- family sued DCS, which knew an infant’s complicated medical history and knew it was likely to cause him significant problems later.  Despite that knowledge DCS failed to inform the family of the child’s medical history and to provide adoption subsidies for special-needs children.  Two previous class-action lawsuits against DCS in the preceding decade were also settled for similar failure to disclose medical history and to provide legally-required support to families[7].

In another effort to rehabilitate Department of Children’s Services, The Second Look Commission, seventeen professionals from the community, was created in 2010 to oversee DCS’s handling of children who were abused more than once. In 2012, the commission reviewed the department’s handling of severe abuse cases generally and six case files in depth. The commission found that DCS was communicating poorly and giving up on children too easily, leaving “gaping holes” for child welfare, and failed to protect children even when abusive families were already known to DCS. Lest we see those instances as simply bureaucratic SNAFUs, the article listed several instances of actual harm to children, in which abused children were not checked on for many months and in which a child was placed with the man who had sexually abused her sister. The commission found that more than six reports, on average, were made for abused children before DCS even investigated the report. And, once again, DCS provided inaccurate data.

Betsy Phillips of Nashville Scene wrote a scathing article about DCS in 2012.  She reports that DCS admitted to “lying by omission for years.”  On top of that, when the Tennessean asked for data on child deaths, the DCS general counsel cited a right to privacy as a reason not to release such data.   He lied, saying that agencies such as DCS were disallowed by federal policy to release such records.  In fact, numerous other states routinely release such data, and there is, apparently, no such federal law.

Ms. Phillips reported that DCS then said that the media didn’t need to look into DCS because of layers of accountability at DCS already in place for child deaths.  When the commission (Child Protection Investigation Team) overseeing child deaths was contacted directly, they said that they only had access to partial information on children’s case files – the part that DCS provided them!  That’s hardly independent. But Governor Haslam still supported DCS. [8]

In 2012, a large coalition of media filed suit against Department of Children’s Services after they made repeated unfulfilled requests to Department of Children’s Services to release information about child deaths.  Department of Children’s Services Commissioner Kate O’Day made excuses for Department of Children’s Services’ concealment: “These are very real issues and the reasons for these privacy laws,” O’Day said. “They’re not to protect DCS, they’re really to protect the families.” The court wouldn’t let Department of Children’s Services tell the same lie again, and in April of 2013, Davidson County Chancery Court required Department of Children’s Services to release the most recent 50 case files of child deaths or near-deaths in 2012.

A Tennessee State House special hearing on DCS was to occur on March 3, 2012.  The Tennessean reported on that date the agency had given “conflicting accounts” about child deaths, a statistic which should have been immediately available and very clear.  The legislature had asked for ten years of data on child deaths but was provided with half that.  The legislators also asked what Governor Haslam knew about the child deaths, and the agency was vague in its response.

Oh, and, by the way, TNDCS Commissioner Kate O’Day resigned the day before she was testify to the state Senate committee overseeing Department of Children’s Services.[9]

The Department of Coverups continued to cover their own asses, leaving children out in the cold.  In late 2012 and early 2013, two Sixth Circuit rulings affected Department of Children’s Services. Up to that point, caseworkers could remove a child from a parent’s custody virtually without cause, with only a court hearing three days later.  The new rulings led Department of Children’s Services’ lead counsel to say that children would not be removed except in the most dire of circumstances without a court ruling. Although it might seem to make sense, insiders knew immediately that the potential for harm to children was staggering. Within hours, TN juvenile court judges agreed to a solution; they would be available 24/7 to make court rulings over the phone when it was necessary to remove children.  Inexplicably, though, Department of Children’s Services’ general counsel Douglas Dimond declined, saying that he felt caseworkers needed to actually appear in a courtroom. Department of Children’s Services appeared to be protecting itself from legal ramifications rather than doing its job of protecting children.

By 2014, there have apparently been some reforms at Department of Children’s Services.  But a January 27, 2014 Audit of Department of Children’s Services revealed a number of problems, including[10]  failing to investigate child-abuse investigations in a careful manner, failing to report child deaths (thus breaking the law), and not accurately tracking juveniles put on probation.

DCS is required to keep data on foster care.  The system is called the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS). A January 30, 2014 Children’s Bureau report revealed that a review of AFCARS data (for the week of April 22, 2103) the foster care data was incorrect, and the associate commission of the Children’s Bureau requested more information.

DCS continually uses confidentiality as an excuse to keep secret their corruption and incompetence. They lie, and children die.  The children who don’t die in Department of Children’s Services’s care languish without permenance.  Reports to a child abuse hotline go unanswered, and multiple reports are needed for Department of Children’s Services to take action even in households they already know to be abusive.

Department of Children’s Services has apparently made some improvement. The 2014 report by the Technical Assistance Committee found improvement (finally) by Department of Children’s Services.  However, reading a Tennessean article about the report, it looks like the department meets their goals 50-60% of the time.  In my book, even 60% is an F.

For more information:

Tennessean’s DCS Series

DCS Federal Oversight Page