COVID-19 spike keeps DCS kids away from families at Christmas

By: - December 24, 2020 5:05 am
Bill's Place, Shelby County (Photo from Youth Villages website)

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

With more than 300 kids stuck in COVID-19 quarantine at facilities licensed by the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services, this holiday season may bring limited cheer or face to face contact with parents and siblings.

Since April, 636 children and youth have tested positive for COVID-19 in facilities connected with DCS —144 of them since December 1. 

The facilities, all 24-hour residential settings, include privately-run treatment centers providing mental health or other services to abused and neglected kids as well as youth involved in the juvenile justice system. 

Tennessee Department of Children's Services logo

They also include county detention centers and the DCS-run Wilder Youth Development Center, a secure facility for kids who have had multiple brushes with the law. 

The holidays can bring a chance for family visits and celebrations or a home pass for kids for a short trip home.

But as COVID-19 cases have spiked — across Tennessee and within facilities for kids in DCS custody — the state’s child welfare agency has limited those visits.

“We have told all the congregate care facilities that visits home must be decided on a case-by-case basis,” Rob Johnson, a spokesman, said via email. 

“We try not to send quarantining children home until their quarantine time is over,” he said.

If a court order mandates home visits for kids in quarantine, Johnson said DCS staff “work with courts to make sure they are aware of the quarantine and that the family understands what that means.”

Visits by family members inside the facilities have also been limited by the pandemic. 

At the onset of the pandemic, DCS suspended all family visits, including for kids who are not in quarantine. Agencies set up video conferencing instead.

By June 10, private facilities were required to have a plan for in-person family visits that included health screening questions, temperature checks and mask requirements. 

Those plans also had to ensure social distancing was maintained during the visits between children and their families.

But facilities that had COVID-19 cases among staff or youth often had to shut down outside visits completely.

“If a facility has COVID-19 in it, usually the health departments mandate no external visitors,” Johnson said.

In total there are 1,399 kids in DCS custody who are currently in privately-run treatment programs, 70 in juvenile detention centers and 89 at Wilder Youth Development Center. 

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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. She is a graduate of Columbia University in New York and the University of California at Berkeley School of Journalism. Wadhwani lives in Nashville with her partner and two children.

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