COVID-19 continues to increase at DCS

At one Nashville facility, 69 children and 24 staff tested positive

Image courtesy of Getty Images.
Image courtesy of Getty Images.

The Department of Children’s Services has produced new details about youth and staff who have tested positive for COVID-19 in county-run detention centers, residential treatment facilities operated by DCS contractors and in Wilder Youth Development Center, DCS’ sole secure lockup for delinquent youth.

In total, 185 youth and 106 staff have tested positive for COVID-19 in those facilities as of Friday, according to data provided by DCS. DCS has not previously made available the number of positive among staff.

Not all of the positive cases involve kids in state custody. Some agencies that contract with DCS to provide round-the-clock care also house children who are placed privately by their families.

Three of these facilities have experienced mass outbreaks, accounting for 168 of all positive tests among staff and children.

At Hermitage Hall, which offers residential treatment to boys and girls ages 8 to 17 in downtown Nashville, 69 children and 24 staff have tested positive for COVID-19. As of Friday, 18 youth and four staff members had recovered, according to DCS.

At the Center for Success and Independence, a Bartlett, Tenn. residential treatment facility providing mental health, drug and alcohol treatment to youth who’ve interacted with the Department of Children’s Services, 48 youth and 14 staff have tested positive. As of Friday, all staff and all but one youth had recovered.

At King’s Daughters’ School in Columbia, Tenn., a boarding school for kids and young people aged 7 to 22 with developmental disabilities, 20 youth and five staff members have tested positive, according to Shauna Pounders, executive director. As of Friday, one staff member had recovered but the 20 youth had not.

Neither the Center for Success and Independence nor Hermitage Hall returned calls seeking more information.

The Sentencing Project, a Washington D.C. advocacy organization, told Tennessee Lookout last week that DCS had the largest COVID-19 outbreak in the nation linked to a single child welfare agency.

A spokeswoman for DCS on Monday argued that it was misleading and unfair to rank states based on this data, which accounted for 27 states and focused only on juvenile justice kids. Not all states are reporting COVID-19, said Jennifer Donnals, the spokeswoman. Some states handle child welfare at the county level and total numbers in these states would be “misleading unless it can be verified that each county in that state is reporting.”

“It is unfair to rank states or report that Tennessee has the ‘second biggest number…’ based on the incomplete and unverified information from the Sentencing Project,” Donnals said.

In looking only at the number of children involved in states’ juvenile justice systems, there are 86 children who have tested positive for COVID-19 in Tennessee.

Arizona, with the largest number of delinquent youth with COVID-19, had 98, as of Friday; Florida had 85. California has 36. These numbers do not include kids in state custody as a result of abuse or neglect.

At King’s Daughter’s School, with 185 staff and 100 students, all of the positive cases were youth who lived on the main campus, said Pounders, the executive director.

“We think the origin of the virus was from a student, but we certainly want to respect that child (children) and their privacy,” Pounders said. “We had two students, roommates, who were tested and received positive results at the exact same time, and we do think that is the likely origin.”

The students live in a number of cottage-like separate houses or residences halls, she said. There are nine houses for school-aged children and young adults.

The school developed protocols in March, ending outside visits, taking students temperatures daily and barring students from leaving campus except for essential medical appointments.

Students with temperatures of 100.4 degrees or higher have been tested and isolated. The school, which has both kids in DCS custody and kids who have been placed by their families, contacts DCS if a child in the agency’s custody is positive and keeps the child in isolation, with staff given additional PPE, according to the protocol. Families of kids who are not in DCS custody are contacted to arrange for pick up and isolation at home.

Students live in group homes on the campus. When one child is positive, the rest of students in the home remain in isolation, too. The other students are encouraged to wear masks, but the protocol notes “not all are able to comply.”

Donnals said the department has been in constant communication with private providers since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and has worked to send youth home in certain situations “if the youth’s mental health or behavioral treatment program has been completed, or if it is in the best interest of the child and the safety of the community.”

Before the COVID-19 outbreak, DCS launched an initiative to reduce the number of children in custody, both in foster homes and residential facilities. The initiative has reduced custody numbers from 9,186 in October to 8,754 as of July 1.

“While this initiative was not started in response to COVID-19, the pandemic has emphasized the importance of making sure that each child has a forever home as quickly and safely as possible,” Donnals said.