DCS faces Tennessee lawmakers' own investigation

7:28 AM, Mar 12, 2013   |    comments
  • Share
  • Print
  • - A A A +

By Anita Wadhwani, The Tennessean

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.

Lawmakers also will tackle the agency's request for a $15.8 million budget increase in two separate hearings Wednesday and Thursday.

"I am 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.

Last 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 elaborate.

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.

Before 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.

The proposed increase would raise the agency's budget to $637 million next year and bring the number of caseworkers on staff to 3,200.

The 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 said.

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.

Most Watched Videos