published Thursday, May 2nd, 2013

Cleaveland: Who will protect state's children?

By Dr. Clif Cleaveland

Children placed in foster care in Tennessee must depend upon the protective oversight of the Department of Children's Services. Serious flaws in meeting that responsibility have recently come to light.

DCS faces an enormous task. In 2012 the agency dealt with 169,000 calls to its child-abuse hotline. More than 60,000 investigations dealing with abuse and neglect were launched.

In 2012, 6,600 children entered foster care. DCS has an additional active roster of children whose situations are under investigation. Nationally, 400,000 children are in foster care on a typical day.

These children may present complex problems of developmental delays and physical or emotional issues. Their homes may be disabled by poverty, alcohol and drug abuse and violence. DCS must investigate and find secure remedies for these children.

For 12 years, DCS has been under federal court oversight as a result of a class-action lawsuit that highlighted serious issues in the management and competency of the agency. Caseworkers were underpaid and overburdened. Persistent problems have extended into the terms of three governors.

DCS' current problem relates to deaths and injuries of children in various stages of investigation or oversight. From January 2009 to July 2012, 151 of these children reportedly died. When this number was challenged, DCS acknowledged that this figure might be imprecise. A computer system was blamed for problems in tracking foster children. The agency had no idea how many deaths or injuries might have occurred.

DCS refused to release its records relating to these deaths to media. Subsequently, The Associated Press and several Tennessee news organizations, including the Chattanooga Times Free Press, filed suit to compel DCS to release records. DCS then stated that release would occur upon payment of $55,584 to cover redacting and copying expenses.

Persistent criticisms of DCS led to the resignation of its director, Commissioner Kate O'Day, on Feb. 4. Gov. Bill Haslam immediately appointed Jim Henry, a former state legislator, as interim commissioner. Some senior staff have been reassigned or have retired. New deputies have been hired.

DCS continued to delay release of relevant records. Finally, on April 16, Davidson County Chancellor Carol McCoy ordered the agency to release 50 of the most recent files relating to fatalities or serious injuries of children with an active relationship to the agency. DCS could charge no more than 50 cents per copy. Finally, the public may learn of the fates of these youngsters.

At issue is the welfare of extremely vulnerable children. They need love and protection. Instead, they are caught in a bureaucracy that has been dysfunctional for more than a decade. Since their records have been hidden from public scrutiny, we can only guess at their fates. Were they placed in abusive foster homes? Were they supervised? Did DCS staff make follow-up visits?

For many youngsters, spring is a time of anticipation of new opportunities. They can contemplate a future of promise. Not so for the unknown number of children whose futures have been threatened or ended altogether through shortcomings at DCS.

Our legislators can investigate this sad situation now or kick the problem down the road as they have in the past. DCS must be publicly accountable. The agency must have sound reorganization together with adequate funds and skilled personnel to assure safe, decent care for every child in its purview. Inaction translates into dead or damaged children. A society is finally judged on how it cares for its most vulnerable members.

Email Clif Cleaveland at cleaveland1000@comcast.net.

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