The head of the Department of Children's Services said Wednesday that his agency has taken strides toward improving child safety and combating abuse, but skeptical lawmakers said those changes have not reached front-line personnel.
Commissioner Jim Henry told a House committee that, under his leadership, the department has retrained field agents in investigative techniques, opened up reviews into child deaths, improved hotlines to report abuse and shortened the amount of time needed to complete adoptions.
But Democratic and Republican lawmakers on the panel said those efforts have not addressed fundamental problems at the Department of Children's Services. They said information about abuse suspicions still fails at times to reach field agents, and they said DCS workers fear retaliation if they point out mistakes made by them or colleagues.
While praising Henry for improving DCS, members of the panel said the department's cultural problems still threaten the welfare of children — sometimes by leaving them in dangerous family situations and other times by removing them from environments where they might see improvement.
"I don't think that we have gone to the bottom, where the kids are, and we're doing for them what we need to be doing," said state Rep. Sherry Jones, D-Nashville. "As much as I appreciate the stuff at the top, the stuff at the bottom is lacking."
Henry took the helm at DCS last February following intense scrutiny of the agency's operations under then-Commissioner Kathryn O'Day. Records obtained by The Tennessean and other news outlets through a court order have shown multiple instances in which children have died either in DCS custody or after field agents were alerted to potentially dangerous situations.
DCS and state attorneys initially fought the suit, saying confidentiality laws prevented the release of records and details about child deaths. But under Henry, the department has begun posting child death reviews on the agency's website.
Members of the House Civil Justice Committee praised Henry for that action. They also praised initiatives such as sending field agents to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation for training and a partnership with Hiwassee College in Madisonville aimed at helping former foster children earn their degrees.
But in questioning that turned testy, Jones said they have been told that DCS workers often do not point out errors because they are afraid of the consequences for themselves or other employees. Two Republican lawmakers, state Reps. Rick Womick of Rockvale and Andrew Farmer of Sevierville, said they have heard similar reports.
"They were saying that workers in the field were afraid to say exactly what happened in a death or near-death situation for fear that they're going to be in trouble or their co-workers or their region's going to be in trouble," Womick said. "So they don't accurately report exactly what happened."
Henry said he has tried to change the department's culture to encourage workers to report mistakes.
"I think we've taken some baby steps," he said. "But it takes a long time. ... We want to get people to talk about problems that we have because we can't solve them unless they do."
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