The acting chief of the Department of Children's Services told
state lawmakers Tuesday about improvements made at the troubled agency
within the past 30 days, including a new policy requiring staff to call
his cellphone within one hour of a child's death in state custody.
Henry, interim commissioner, fielded questions from lawmakers for about
three hours at a special hearing to examine mounting problems at the
$650 million child welfare agency. The department's inconsistent
reporting of child deaths and other issues led to the resignation of the
former commissioner, Kate O'Day, last month.
He asked lawmakers for their help.
is a department where there are no answers," Henry said. "You pull a
child out of a home early and people complain. You don't pull a child
out of a home, people complain."
"I need your help. The
legislature is a very important element in this, with resources. I need
the governor's help. And I need the media's help," Henry said.
an entourage of more than a dozen senior-level DCS staffers, Henry
appeared before the House Government Operations Committee.
Several lawmakers said they needed to know more about how the department carries out its child welfare work.
didn't have enough time to get into the weeds," said Rep. G.A.
Hardaway, a Memphis Democrat. "Henry is a good man who has walked into a
hornet's nest. Some of the questions we posed today were kind to him.
But he's probably going to get stung before this is over."
had posed in advance a lengthy list of questions - some broad and
others laser-focused on specific policies - and spent the hearing asking
how caseworkers are trained, how the agency answers calls on its child
abuse hotline and what exactly investigators do when they arrive at a
home where a child has been abused or neglected.
For his part, Henry reported numerous steps he has taken to try to
right the agency, including reversing several of O'Day's decisions.
has hired back former staff members she had fired - including former
agency director Debbie Miller and former spokesman Rob Johnson. He also
decided to pursue accreditation with the Council on Accreditation, which
requires the agency to maintain adherence to the council's tough
standards for child welfare agencies, reversing an O'Day decision.
has tapped experts in the Department of Intellectual and Developmental
Disabilities - where Henry still serves as commissioner - to assist DCS
in creating new internal child death review protocols, which are used to
learn why children known to DCS died and to prevent future incidents.
has personally notified legislators of child deaths in their districts,
has met with national experts, has reviewed the department's computer
system and has met multiple times with child advocates and leaders of
private companies who care for about half of the state's foster
He has created a "kitchen cabinet" of advisers that
includes former Nashville Mayor Bill Purcell (Miller's husband); Briant
Millsaps, president and treasurer of the Tennessee Baptist Children's
Home; and Brad Martin, former chairman and CEO of Saks Inc., the retail
company where Gov. Bill Haslam once served as a president and CEO of its
When asked how he would assess the meeting with Henry, Oak Ridge Republican Rep. John Ragan said, "How did it go? That's a loaded question. 'Well' is not a good description. It was good information."
More than money
Lawmakers - and Henry - offered different conclusions that appeared
to veer along partisan lines about the role funding plays in solving
Before her departure, O'Day proposed increasing the
agency budget by $15.8 million in state and federal funding, to hire
more caseworkers and lawyers - a measure that has Haslam's support.
The agency has seen its budget cut by $30 million and has lost more than 200 staff members in the past two years under O'Day.
Tuesday's hearing, Rep. Mike Turner, a Nashville Democrat, told Henry
he believed some DCS problems stem from cuts to staff and funding.
"I think the governor has tried to correct a lot lost in his budget ... but I think he needs to correct it more," Turner said.
Sherry Jones, D-Nashville, was more direct: "We have plenty of money, and we just need to put it into the department."
however, said, "The issue of the budget is not a core problem. The
first priority is organizing the agency. Then you can talk later about
And Henry, a longtime Republican lawmaker before
joining the private sector and then state government, said the problems
are deeper than money alone can fix: "This is an economic recession. I
doubt you can tax your way out of this problem, and I doubt if you can
cut your way out of this problem."
Today and Thursday, lawmakers will review the agency's budget request in separate hearings.