Youth sent out of state by DCS return with COVID

Michigan center that housed boys reported at least 46 COVID-positive cases

By: - May 18, 2020 7:30 am
Bill's Place, Shelby County (Photo from Youth Villages website)

Bill’s Place, Shelby County (Photo from Youth Villages website)

The Tennessee Department of Children’s Services sent five teenage boys out of state to a Kalamazoo, Mich. facility for troubled youth.

Three of the boys came back to Tennessee positive for COVID-19.

The boys, ranging in age from 13 to 18, are among 52 children currently in DCS custody who have tested positive for the virus while living in treatment centers, detention facilities or group homes, according to an agency spokeswoman. 

Three young children in foster care, ranging in age from 3 months to 4 years, have also tested positive, the spokeswoman said. Two have since recovered.

Nursing homes and prisons are home to some of the nation’s largest outbreaks of COVID-19, with deadly consequences for often-vulnerable individuals with poor health and pre-existing conditions.

But there are increasing reports of children living full-time in institutional settings testing positive, too. Outbreaks have occured in youth facilities in Michigan, New York, Nevada, Missouri and Pennsylvania. 

In Tennessee, the first reported outbreak was inside the Memphis Center for Success and Independence, where 45 of 48 youth getting mental health and substance abuse have tested positive along with 11 staff members. Six of the staff members have since recovered.

Five DCS facilities have had youth or staff members test positive: Memphis Center for Success and Independence, Compass Intervention Center, Mountain View Academy (Jefferson County,)  Bill’s Place (Shelby County) and Bledsoe Youth Academy (Sumner County.)  

National Guard and health department officials last week completed a mass testing at the Bledsoe Youth Academy in Gallatin, where one staff member reported a positive test. Another single-incidence occurred at Compass Intervention Center in Shelby County. A girl tested positive on May 2. A mass testing of children and staff yielded no other positive there.

The five boys were living in Michigan at the Lakeside Academy, where yet another outbreak occurred. 

Children in DCS custody are typically sent out of state when their emotional and behavioral problems prove too risky to be placed in a foster family and there are no available treatment slots in Tennessee.

On April 30, a 16-year-old boy at the Kalamazoo facility lost consciousness while being forcefully restrained by staff members. The boy, who was positive for COVID-19, died the next day.  

It’s unknown if the boy was known to be positive before he was taken to the hospital or tested positive once there. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services did not respond to questions. 

Compass Intervention Center in Memphis (Photo from Compass' Facebook page)
Compass Intervention Center in Memphis (Photo from Compass’ Facebook page)

However, the circumstances surrounding the boy’s death prompted a state and criminal investigation, and mass testing. At least 37 teens and 9 Lakeside staff members have tested positive for COVID-19 since.  Boys placed at the facility by child welfare officials in other states were sent back.

DCS transportation officers departed for Kalamazoo on May 1 to pick up the five Tennessee boys and deliver them to two youth facilities “to finish their treatment programs,” DCS said. 

“We removed all of them immediately after learning of the death and investigation. (Not because of COVID-19.),” said Jennifer Donnals, spokeswoman for DCS. “Out of an abundance of caution, we had all five youth tested for COVID-19 as soon as they returned to Tennessee, before they were transported to the facilities where they are now.”

One of the boys who tested positive was placed in quarantine at Mountain View Academy, a DCS institution for delinquent youth. He did not show any symptoms and was cleared by the department of health on Wednesday. 

There are no plans to conduct mass testing at Mountain View, Donnals said. 

Two of the boys were placed in quarantine at Bill’s Place, a residential facility with 90 children operated by Youth Villages in Shelby County. One has since tested negative and one re-tested as positive. Neither has shown symptoms, Donnals said. 

“Every staff member who had been in contact with the boys was tested, and all tests were negative,” said Connie Mills, a spokeswoman for Youth Villages. “Youth Villages follows all the CDC recommendations around masking and the wearing of personal protection equipment when appropriate. These are the only two youth who have tested positive in our residential services.”

Children were initially believed to be far less susceptible to getting sick, but health officials in New York and in several other countries have recently reported serious symptoms, and a few deaths, in otherwise healthy children. 

Donnals said DCS is receiving daily updates on children in custody and has issued guidance to staff in residential care facilities to do temperature checks of all staff before they enter. In March, the facilities halted all visitors from entering facilities.

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Anita Wadhwani
Anita Wadhwani

Anita Wadhwani is a senior reporter for the Tennessee Lookout. The Tennessee AP Broadcasters and Media (TAPME) named her Journalist of the Year in 2019 as well as giving her the Malcolm Law Award for Investigative Journalism. Wadhwani is formerly an investigative reporter with The Tennessean who focused on the impact of public policies on the people and places across Tennessee.