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DCS interim leader Jim Henry vows to attack problems, meet with children's advocates

8:32 AM, Feb 7, 2013   |    comments
Interim Chief of the Department of Children's Services, Jim Henry/The Tennessean
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By Anita Wadhwani, The Tennessean

Interim Department of Children's Services Commissioner Jim Henry on Wednesday told state lawmakers he was not going to be "baby-sitting" but would immediately "attack the problems as they exist" at the state's troubled $650 million child welfare agency.

In his first full day on the job, Henry - who still serves as the commissioner of the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities - laid out his preliminary plan for that attack. He will meet with DCS private contractors and staff, assess progress on the department's glitch-prone computer system and hold round­tables across the state with private agencies that work with children.

Henry committed to reporting back to the Senate Health and Welfare Committee in March once he had conducted a review of the department in tandem with Gov. Bill Haslam's appointee Larry Martin, who was tapped last week to review the department.

And, Henry will review DCS' decision to charge media organizations more than $55,000 for records about child fatalities and near fatalities.

"Quite frankly, it just sounds a little high to me," Henry told reporters after the legislative hearing.

More access

Henry said his first priority is meeting with lawmakers, private agencies, children's advocates and DCS staff and getting "everyone at the table that's involved in these services across the state."

It was an answer that lawmakers seemed eager to hear. Kate O'Day, DCS' Commissioner until Tuesday, had been criticized for failing to meet with outside groups that do much of the work with children in state care.

"I think the governor made a good choice and you will hopefully be able to bring some of the parties back together and reunite people for the mission of the children," said Sen. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge. "I think a lot of that has been lost in what has gone on recently."

Henry also met with members of the Tennessee Alliance for Children and Families, which represents the private agencies that collectively serve half the children in DCS custody - mostly children with severe behavioral or physical problems. The group had taken the rare step late last year of issuing a public call to meet with O'Day, who had not met with them in more than a year.

Executive Director Darci Halfman said Wednesday her group was encouraged by the swiftness with which Henry was acting. By mid-afternoon, he had held a staff meeting, testified before lawmakers, held a news conference and met with DCS serving agencies for an hour, handing out his cellphone number and promising to return.

"I think it's very encouraging he's moved so quickly to meet with providers and meet with me and others, too," said Linda O'Neal, executive director with the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth, who will meet with Henry today.

Hearings planned

Lawmakers concerned about growing problems at DCS in the past year said Henry's appointment will not postpone their own urgent inquiries into troubles at the department.

DCS has come under scrutiny for a growing series of missteps that include admitting, at least four times, that it had miscounted the deaths of children served by the agency, a $27 million computer system that failed to properly track children in its care, a child abuse hotline unable to handle all calls and accusations that caseworkers failed to adequately investigate child abuse.

Rep. Mike Turner, D-Old Hickory, said he hopes to convene a special hearing to examine DCS as early as next week. The House Government Operations Committee also is planning a hearing on the agency later in the month.

Progress reports

Sen. Doug Overbey, R-Maryville, asked Henry to return to the Senate Health and Welfare Committee in March and again in April to report back on progress at the department.

"We need to continue to ask the tough questions," Overbey said. "That's our role to do. We also need to continue the role of being a resource. That's why I suggest ... we continue the discussion so we stay on top of this matter while we are in session."

In the meantime, Henry said he would be completing his own assessment. He told reporters he had not yet drawn any conclusions about how serious problems at the agency had grown.

"I just haven't been there long enough to make an evaluation," he said. "I will do that as quickly as I can, and you can come back and ask me that."

He said he invited scrutiny going forward.

"I'm going to try and have a department that's open to that and welcomes it," he said. "And if you want to look over our shoulder, you do it. I think we'll be proud of our work, and we won't have anything to hide."

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