By Anita Wadhwani and Tony Gonzalez, The Tennessean
Two top-ranking Republicans plan to convene legislative meetings to examine the Department of Children's Services as a growing number of Tennessee lawmakers demand answers from the $650 million child protection agency.
Speaker of the House Beth Harwell and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey plan to announce legislative meetings to examine DCS when the General Assembly reconvenes late this month, Harwell said Wednesday.
Republican leaders will ask lawmakers to "examine our existing statutes and to identify laws and innovative practices in other states that may be good ideas for Tennessee," Harwell said in a prepared statement.
The plans come in response to an earlier call by Democratic Rep. Mike Turner to hold an investigation of how DCS operates.
Republican Rep. Jon Lundberg of Bristol said he would ask his own legislative committee to examine the work of the state agency. He said he was prompted by a series of recent revelations in news stories in The Tennessean and in public reports released by watchdog groups.
"I have lots of questions, and I'm going into this open to hearing from across the board how DCS operates and what is going on over there," said Lundberg, who co-chairs the Civil Justice Committee. "We have a very steep learning curve and a short time to get there."
O'Day said on Tuesday that her agency is responding.
"Our philosophy with the legislature, from the very beginning, has been that the more that they know about what we do, the better," O'Day said. "So we've done numerous visits with our legislators, to our various field offices, and plan to continue that open dialogue. We're ready to talk to anybody at any time and answer whatever questions they have."
O'Day and DCS have come under fire in recent months as a variety of problems emerged.
Thirty-one children who had been brought to the attention of the agency died in the first six months of 2012, but DCS refused to turn over details about the deaths, citing federal and state confidentiality requirements.
The Tennessean and a coalition of the state's other media organizations filed suit in December to open those records in Davidson County Chancery Court. Separately, a national children's watchdog agency filed a motion in federal court this month seeking similar records. A decision has not yet been reached in either case.
At least 42 more children died in the last six months of 2012.
In September, DCS' chief counsel, Doug Dimond, acknowledged the agency had been violating the law by not reporting child fatalities and near fatalities to lawmakers.
Since October, the agency has sent out 128 such notices to lawmakers, according to spokeswoman Molly Sudderth. There is more than one notice sent for each child because incidents are reported to both the state senator and representative who represent the area where the child died, Sudderth said.
The agency has been criticized for poor responses to child abuse, high rates of employee turnover and - in some cases - its lack of compliance with federal and state laws.
Lundberg said he will meet with O'Day on Wednesday. Democratic lawmaker John DeBerry Jr. of Memphis requested his own meeting this week. Rep. Sherry Jones said she has tried but failed to land a meeting with O'Day. Jones has called on O'Day to resign.
Lundberg, DeBerry and Jones are all members of the newly formed Civil Justice Committee, which is charged with reviewing all bills and policy issues affecting DCS as well as other civil matters.
Lundberg noted his committee had subpoena powers.
"It doesn't look good for children to die and that's not what we want Tennessee to be judged by, so we're going to do everything we can to fix it," DeBerry said.
Republican Rep. John Ragan of Oak Ridge said he had his own concerns about the department, sending two letters in the past two weeks asking for answers about a particular child. The agency responded in part last week, but Ragan said he was not satisfied.
Some Democratic lawmakers found fault with the timing of the Republican leadership's decision to dissolve the Children & Family Affairs Committee, a panel of lawmakers that in the past made laws about the Department of Children's Services. The panel was dissolved last week. The duties of that panel and a subcommittee of that group were redistributed to the Civil Justice Committee.
"We've backed off of the subcommittee. Now, apparently we are not going to have the standing Committee on Children and Family Affairs," said Democrat Craig Fitzhugh. "I'm certainly concerned about a lack of legislative oversight with children's services. Clearly, it needs it."