Tag Archives: Tennessee Department of Children’s Services

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


Governor Haslam Drops the Ball

Seriously, Gov?  This is the best you can do?  The SAME canned response you’ve been sending all along?  You COULD look into DCS’ actions and coverup.  You COULD make sure that your employees are doing their jobs.  But this same canned response, over and over, is all you can manage?

From: <Bill.Haslam@tn.gov>

Date: June 24, 2014 at 9:43:39 AM CDT

To: <undisclosed recipient >

Subject: Responding to your message

Dear Friend:

Thank you for taking the time to write to Governor Haslam.  We have also seen the recent news reports about this custody dispute that has resulted in a girl being taken from her foster parents and placed with a biological father who is out of state.

It is our understanding that these circumstances are a result of several different court cases. The Governor does not have jurisdiction or control over the decisions of courts and is not able to intervene in this tragic situation. DCS is required to follow the guidance and direction of the courts. 
This case has stirred deep emotions on both sides, and we hope the most appropriate resolution for this child can be found as it works its way through the judicial process. Again, thank you for your message.

Best Regards,

Don Johnson
Deputy Director, Constituent Services

Suddenly, a new family

Two recent high-profile cases have caught the attention of child welfare activists.  One of the primary reasons for the substantial media attention to both cases has been the sudden nature of the transitions.  It’s obvious even to non-professionals that a child shouldn’t be plucked from one family and dropped into another without time and procedures for adjustment. Let’s try something.

If you didn’t know anything about children and their development, but you had to be in charge of a child’s transition from a foster family the child has been with and loves to another family that child didn’t know, how would you do it?

  1. Right after the judge’s decision, have the police come to a meeting with both families.  Despite the child’s protests of not knowing the new family, and wanting to stay with his or her family, turn the child over within a few hours.


  1. Make the transition over weeks or months.  Start with phone calls, then visits in neutral locations with both families present, letting the child express his or her feelings and having a mental health consultant present.  Allow both families to be present in the child’s life.

If you answered B, you have common sense!  I don’t really think we need much research to understand that B is the only reasonable answer.  And, in fact, this is probably the way that most transitions from foster care work.

“Once the child attaches to a caregiver and that caregiver has become the psychological parent, it is crucial that the transition from the caregiver’s home be as emotionally protective as possible. Poorly executed or improperly timed transitions may adversely impact a child’s healthy development as well as the child’s continuing capacity to attach to others.”[1]

Obviously, if a child is in a psychologically or physically dangerous situation, an immediate transfer is necessary. In the recent cases, though, a child was transferred from one loving family to another, under court order, without any transition time.  The abrupt transition puts children at serious risk of mental health problems, including Reactive Attachment Disorder or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

The cases

In 2011, when she was two years old, VC was transferred to her biological father from the family who had raised her since birth.  (For more information, see http://tallasthesky.com/?cat=12).  The transfer occurred soon after a court hearing, with little warning and no transition ordered by the court.  In the second case, 9 year-old Sonya Hodgin, who had been with her foster and adoptive family about 8 years, was turned over with two hours notice to her biological father, with whom she had had no relationship.  Police were present, and Sonya was begging not to let him take her.

Now, there are clearly exceptions to a gradual transition, and the best interest of each child should be taken into account each time.  This means that Child Protective Services workers, attorneys, judges, guardians at litem, and attorneys ad litum should understand a child’s situation. These are children’s emotional lives at stake.  The transition should never be dramatic just because the court battle has dragged out.

When a babysitter comes over, you give him or her instructions on what to do.  When’s bedtime, the child’s routines, what the child is allowed and not allowed to do, what allergies s/he has, information about special needs or medical conditions.  Think how much more information should pass between parents in a permanent transition situation.  Parenting coordination has been developed as a discipline to help high-conflict parents implement their parenting plans.[2]  Professionals are available to help with transitions, and they should be consulted.

Healthy Transitions

Let’s look at what’s standard practice and what the research says about how children should be transitioned.

A simple factsheet from www.childwelfare.gov provides some information for foster families transitioning to adoptive family.[3]  Even a child remaining within the same home, but making the transition from foster care to adoption, needs help with the transition.  The factsheet recommends helping a child understand her life history and path forward, and giving her implicit and explicit permission to love both families.

Henry (2005) outlines a model for transitions from foster to adoptive care, which could serve as a model cases like VC’s case and Sonya’s case. Her model lists five steps.  First, a child should be given notification of a move over a period of weeks.  Second, a visit should occur in the existing home for two to three hours with both families present.  Next, two to three visits within 1-3 days of each other should occur with the newer family outside the home.  After that, 3+ four- to six- hour visits at the new home should occur within a week.  Finally, 4-6 overnight visits in a period of two weeks complete the transition period.  Of course, the child’s individual circumstances, adjustment to the transition and development level should be taken in to account.  Had Henry’s (2005) guidelines been followed, both children would have had much less stress in the transition and less risk of psychological harm.

Children who don’t have a stable family life have enough stress without dramatic transitions.  Our court system, and our child protection agencies, need to do better for children.

[1] Advokids: A Legal Resource for California Foster Children and Their Advocates.  http://advokids.org/resources/childhood-mental-health/transitions/

[2] Greenberg, E. (2010, January).  Fine Tuning the Brainding of Parenting Coordination.  Family Court Review 48(1), 206-2011.

[3] Children’s Bureau (2012).  Helping Your Foster Child Transition to Your Adopted Child. www.childwelfare.gov.

Nine year old girl sent to live with violent felon

A nine-year old Tennessee girl, Sonya Hodgin, needs our help. Sonya lived with her father in Nebraska.  However, her father, John McCaul, owned a gentleman’s club and was rarely home.  Sonya had a caregiver who, when she had a family emergency, took Sonya to Tennessee.  She had McCaul’s permission to do so.  It was only after several months, when they hadn’t returned, that McCaul wanted his baby back.  Sonya was cared for by David and Kim Hodgin much of that time, though Sonya didn’t live with them.  The Hodgins reported the caregiver’s parents to the Department of Children’s Services (DCS) because the house was unsafe for children. DCS took custody of Sonya and placed her with the Hodgins.
Meanwhile, Sonya’s biological father, a violent career criminal, was in prison in Nebraska, sentenced to 15 years for three counts of felony robbery and possession of a firearm by a felon.  In Tennessee, when a child is under the age of 8 and a parent is sentenced to 10 or more years in jail, parental rights are automatically terminated ((TN Adoption Code Chapter 36-1-113 (6)).  The Hodgins adopted Sonya while he was in prison, when she was 4 years old. However, when her biological father cooperated with a murder investigation, his sentence was reduced from 15 years to 7.5 years. Still, his rights had been already terminated and the adoption was complete.
In 2009, the court overturned the adoption.  The reason the termination was invalidated by the appellate court is that the parties had agreed to try the case on one issue: abandonment.  Abandonment is a different ground than being incarcerated for more than 10 years under TN law.  The trial court had declined to terminate on the grounds of abandonment and terminated under the grounds that the biological father was serving more than 15 years.  On appeal, the biological father argued that he wasn’t given notice to defend on grounds other than abandonment, and, had he known, he would have brought up his sentence reduction.
Through all of these appeals, Sonya stayed with the Hodgins, while custody remained with CPS.
Sonya was with the Hodgins until January 29, 2014.  With police intervention, Sonya, with only a few hours notice, was turned over to her biological father, a “violent career criminal” who was essentially a stranger to her.  They spent a night in a motel, then returned to Nebraska, where she remains today.
Can you imagine how scary it’d be to be Sonya – 9 years old, and turned over to stay in a motel room with a man you’d only spoken to once?  And then taken from your life with your family to live across the country with strangers?
What happens to all the other children in foster care who might get adopted, but whose foster parents think the biological parent might be able to overturn the adoption?  Do we, as a society, really want children in stable, loving homes – who’ve been there most of their lives, turned over to violent career criminals?
Please, go to www.bringsonyahome.com and sign the petition to bring this sweet girl back to her family!