By: Anita Wadhwani, The Tennessean
When the governor appointed Jim Henry to lead the Department of Children's Services three months ago - after the abrupt resignation of his predecessor, Kate O'Day - Henry stepped into an agency accused of repeatedly failing to protect and care for Tennessee's children.
Law enforcement and child advocates were critical of the agency for not investigating cases of severe child abuse. DCS officials could not seem to keep track of how many children they had investigated who ultimately died. A new $27 million computer system would not spit out basic data on kids in DCS care; and the agency's child abuse hotline was losing callers to long wait times.
After years of harsh scrutiny, some of the fiercest DCS critics are offering a measure of praise for Henry's efforts during his first 90 days on the job.
"It's like night and day," said Linda O'Neal, executive director of the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth.The commission is a 50-year-old agency created by the lawmakers to advocate for children and families. "I've worked around DCS for more than a decade, and I believe it was at its lowest point when he stepped in there than I've ever seen it in terms of morale, accountability and need for open, positive leadership. I believe he is providing that."
Henry ordered a full and accurate accounting of child deaths, invested more than $2 million to fix the computer system, formed a partnership with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to probe abuse and neglect allegations and hired an outside call center expert to fix the hotline.
But new revelations about the agency's conduct may soon present more challenges for Henry. On Friday, under court order, DCS released hundreds of pages of internal documents about children who died or nearly died after being reported to the agency, after The Tennessean and a dozen other news organizations sued for access. The cases are prior to July 2012.
Those records reveal there were children who died as a result of abuse or neglect, and the state failed to pursue criminal prosecutions against their perpetrators. In releasing the records, Davidson County Chancellor Carol McCoy said "there have been balls dropped" at DCS.
By May 31, a new independent review of how well DCS has served the state's foster children will be filed in federal court by Children's Rights, a legal watchdog group that represents children in foster care. DCS has been under federal court oversight for more than a decade and is required to report to Children's Rights and the court its progress in caring for foster kids.
By November, officials with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services are expected to submit their own analysis of the agency and its troubled computer system. The system has failed to generate payments to foster families and private agencies, frustrated caseworkers trying to document their investigations about the welfare of children and led to faulty child abuse data reporting.
Henry has asked for the public's patience.
"To think we could solve it all in 90 days is a little bit pretentious," Henry said last week in an interview with The Tennessean. "This is an ongoing reorganization."
But he also has pledged that as new problems emerge, the agency will try to be more transparent and learn from its mistakes to better protect children.
"If there's a reason a 6-year-old child dies and there's a problem here, if we didn't answer the phone quickly enough, we didn't react to the investigation quickly enough, we ought to know that."
No stranger to DCS
Henry, 68, was appointed by Gov. Bill Haslam on Feb. 5, immediately following the departure of the former commissioner O'Day, who was criticized for her agency's repeated miscounts of child deaths, firing dozens of staff members and being inaccessible to people who work with children across the state when they had concerns about DCS' work.
Henry was serving as commissioner of the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, a dual role he still holds.
But Henry was no stranger to DCS.
For 13 years, Henry served as president and CEO of Nashville-based Omni Visions, the largest private agency doing business with DCS. Although Henry is no longer affiliated with the company, DCS currently has a $51 million contract with Omni Visions to serve difficult-to-place foster children. Private agencies such as Omni recruit foster families and run inpatient psychiatric institutions for about half the children in DCS custody.
In his first three months on the job, Henry has:
• Rehired some of the 70 executive-level staffers that O'Day fired.
• Restructured the agency's leadership, bringing in outside experts to create a new system for monitoring and investigating child deaths or near deaths. In the process, he has demoted some officials while reorganizing others' jobs and expanded the number of staffers who report directly to him.
• Hired an analyst to examine trends in child deaths in the state to "change our system to react quicker, faster, find these kids faster," he said.
• Ordered a review of the way the agency handles child deaths, consulted with national experts and instituted a more open policy through a weekly newsletter outlining his actions to staff and media.
• Met with private agency leaders across the state who oversee much of the day-to-day responsibilities for foster care children. Many in those agencies noted they had not been able to see or speak with former DCS chief O'Day in more than a year.
• Begun the process early of hiring 100 caseworkers to handle DCS' increasing caseload of children brought to its attention for allegations of abuse and neglect, and children in foster care.
"I think the biggest issue we face is trying to find good staff," Henry said. "I think we've got a really good department here. We make a lot of mistakes."
"But, you know, when you look at what we're responsible for," Henry said, noting that DCS has 8,300 children in custody, each with his/her own unique needs. "You're going into homes that you don't know anything about. You're dealing with drug issues that you don't know anything about. You've got parents that you don't know anything about. There's just a lot of problems with that. ... And sometimes, the first time we hear anything about it is when it's too late."
Henry said DCS also is facing large increases in the volume of reports of child abuse and neglect. The agency is on track to investigate 76,000 reports of abuse or neglect this year, compared to 62,000 investigations last year, Henry said. And even with a $15 million budget increase beginning in July, the agency is operating with $20 million less than five years ago.
Gov. Bill Haslam's spokesman Dave Smith said the governor is keeping close tabs on the work of the department. Haslam appointed Knoxville banker Larry Martin as his special adviser on DCS shortly before Henry's appointment and the governor continues to monitor the agency's progress. Last week, Smith noted, Haslam met Henry for lunch, held a meeting with senior staff and took a walk through the department's downtown offices.
Haslam "is encouraged so far by the steps being taken," Smith said. "The governor believes it is important to continue building on the changes that have been made, strengthening processes and policies and improving the total work of the department.
But Henry, the agency and the governor will do it under continued scrutiny, said state Sen. Jim Summerville, a Republican from Dickson County.
Lawmakers have already launched their own investigations, holding a series of hearings in recent months to demand answers from DCS officials.
"This is a life-and-death emergency situation in Tennessee," Summerville said. "Nothing more important needs to be accomplished. Ultimately, it's Haslam's responsibility as executive, but we will be keeping a close eye on how Commissioner Henry leads the department.
"I'm hopeful about Commissioner Henry, but I want to see change apace. I want to see something happening we can be sure is addressing problem at a deeper level.
"We've been in a dark cave with all this, so where are we going? We'll have to wait and see, but how long will we wait?''
Reach Anita Wadhwani at email@example.com or 615-259-8092.