State lawmakers are preparing to conduct their own investigation into the troubled Department of Children's Services this week, beginning with a three-hour special hearing called for today.
also will tackle the agency's request for a $15.8 million budget
increase in two separate hearings Wednesday and Thursday.
hoping these hearings will give us the opportunity to have some
questions answered by the department, and ensure that we are doing
everything in our legislative power to provide them with the tools and
resources they need to successfully protect our children's health,
safety and welfare," House Speaker Beth Harwell said in announcing the
hearings, after pointed requests by Democratic leaders for the
legislature to investigate DCS.
Key on the agenda for today's
hearing in the House Government Operations Committee are questions about
child deaths under the agency's watch.
The agency's conflicting
accounts have left uncertainty about how many children died while in
state custody or after having been brought to the agency's attention,
and whether any of those deaths could have been prevented.
week, in its 113-page response to questions submitted by members of the
House Democratic Caucus, DCS provided partial answers. The agency
confirmed that 25 children died in state custody in 2011 and 2012, but
it has not yet provided the larger number of children who died after
having some contact with the agency.
Lawmakers asked for 10 years
of fatality data; DCS provided five years' worth of information.
Lawmakers had also asked DCS to explain when and what information about
child fatalities was presented to Gov. Bill Haslam. The agency responded
only that "some information" was provided in October 2012 but did not
Lawmakers also asked questions ranging from how well
caseworkers are trained and paid to how the agency's glitchy computer
system is working.
Interim DCS Commissioner Jim Henry, appointed
to the temporary position after the resignation of former DCS chief Kate
O'Day, and other senior staff are expected to take questions.
Budget on the table
Later this week, lawmakers will consider the agency's request for more money.
O'Day's departure, she proposed a $15.8 million budget increase in
combined federal and state dollars for the agency to add 40 case
managers and more attorneys.
DCS is now operating with its
smallest budget and case manager levels in five years, even as it
grapples with far more children in its care. The number of children in
DCS custody increased by 18 percent between 2010 and 2012. During the
same period, DCS budget cuts eliminated 200 staff and caseworker
positions and lopped $30 million from the agency's total budget.
proposed increase would raise the agency's budget to $637 million next
year and bring the number of caseworkers on staff to 3,200.
hearings come as nearly 700 children's advocates from around the state
descend on the legislature today and Wednesday to advocate for stronger
protections for Tennessee's children.
Advocates organized by the
Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth will fan out to meet
individual lawmakers and attend sessions with speakers including first
lady Chrissy Haslam, co-chair of the Governor's Children's Cabinet,
which examines children's issues in Tennessee.
In addition to
lobbying for a DCS oversight committee and advocating for laws affecting
juvenile justice and custody and protecting children from abuse, the
advocates endorse a plan to expand Tennessee's Medicaid program,
TennCare, to include more children, Executive Director Linda O'Neal
Also today, state representatives are scheduled to discuss
two proposals concerning the treatment of women who have used
prescription drugs while pregnant. One, the "Safe Harbor Act," would
provide incentives to get treatment. The other, HB1295, would allow law
enforcement to prosecute for harm done during the pregnancy. Two
subcommittees have scheduled the bills at 3 p.m., in adjacent rooms.
Legislature examines DCS
Today: House Government Operations Committee convenes a special hearing on problems at DCS, noon-3 p.m.
Wednesday: Senate Health and Welfare Committee takes up DCS' budget proposals, 11 a.m.
Thursday: The House holds budget hearings on DCS, 11 a.m.