By Tony Gonzalez, The Tennessean
More than a dozen families claiming mistreatment by the Tennessee
Department of Children's Services gathered Monday in Nashville to share
their stories with Rep. Sherry Jones, a longtime critic of the state's
child protection agency.
Continuing coverage of the Department of Children's Services
families - mostly mothers and grandmothers - spoke of child custody
battles, perceived violations of law by DCS caseworkers, and
difficulties navigating what they described as a confusing and sometimes
combative state system.
Although the particulars varied, most
stories included families pleading for more respect and clearer
explanations from the DCS case managers whose decisions can change their
"It was: 'Sign this piece of paper or I'm going to get
your kids and you'll never see them again,' " said Julia Millsaps of
Kingston, describing a meeting with a state investigator. "I'll sign
just about anything, just tell me what it is. We were never told."
leaders recently have responded to similar concerns about front-line
caseworkers by considering new forms of training and requesting pay
increases aimed at keeping experienced workers with the department.
DCS does its work, investigating child abuse and overseeing foster
children, has been the subject of scrutiny since Jones voiced concerns
about the availability of DCS child fatality information in September.
Since then, child advocates, lawmakers, former employees and The Tennessean have detailed other systemic problems. Gov. Bill Haslam appointed a special adviser to probe the department. And Kate O'Day resigned from the commissioner's post Feb. 5, making way for Jim Henry, commissioner of the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, to temporarily run the agency until Haslam chooses a full-time replacement.
All of the attention has emboldened some families to share their experiences.
a state holiday, Jones listened to them most of the afternoon in a room
at the nearly deserted Legislative Plaza. Millsaps and most others
drove hours to be there - from as far as Johnson City - for a rare
face-to-face with the lawmaker and with families who share similar
Jones took turns talking with each who came, at one
point spending almost an hour on the room's maroon carpet to look over
records pulled from one woman's black accordion folder. Almost everyone
came with paperwork, whether in a 3-inch red binder or a slim purple
"We're seeing (Jones) so each one of our cases can be
heard," Millsaps said, "so she knows how to address the people within
the higher departments of DCS."
What Jones can do with each
grievance isn't always clear, although she has already filed a bill that
would create a new commission to oversee the department.
attendees envision an ongoing support group. Last month, Jackson,
Tenn.-based attorney Lanis Karnes hosted one such meeting, and another
will take place next month in East Tennessee.
Karnes said that she
has discussed a class-action lawsuit against the department but that
other options will be considered first, such as continued lawmaker
meetings or more family law training sessions for attorneys across the
"Some of the people today, their cases are over. There's
not much recourse for them," Karnes said. "Awareness is the biggest
thing. We can provide information."