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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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."
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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."