In grainy still photos cropped from video obtained by the Tennessee Lookout, children in state custody sleep on the floor of a state office building. One teen sleeps on the bare floor while another lies on an air mattress with no blanket. The children were in the custody of the Department of Children’s Services (Photo: submitted)
A teenage girl in a pink hoodie and jeans slept restlessly in a downtown Nashville office, with no pillow, sheet, blanket, mattress or pad separating her from the carpeted floor.
Another teen slept directly on the floor, too, huddled under a single blanket. A few feet away, two elementary-school-age kids slept head to toe on a single twin mattress. Three other teens were also asleep in the room, where piles of kids’ clothing, a crib, and toys lined the walls along with trash and at least one bunched up dirty diaper.
A total of seven kids in the custody of the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services were forced to spend the night in office space at the Davy Crockett Tower in downtown Nashville on July 16 — a Friday night — in an instance captured on video and obtained by the Tennessee Lookout.
Children are typically taken into custody to ensure their safety and well-being after DCS investigates allegations of abuse or neglect. Kids come into custody experiencing trauma from abuse, trauma from being taken from familiar surroundings and often a sense of powerlessness and fear over their future.
Taking kids to sleep with strangers in an office without providing essential comforts represents a failure by the state agency to live up to its most basic duties, according to a longtime DCS caseworker, who requested anonymity out of fear drawing attention to the department’s treatment of children result in firing.
“Being unable to find a placement was an ongoing problem before the pandemic,” the caseworker said. “It’s gotten much worse. The number of kids sleeping in offices has never been this bad.”
The caseworker said that DCS has failed to provide enough back-up for kids taken into custody — foster parents, or temporary and more appropriate spaces, — as the pandemic impacted the ongoing willingness of foster parents to take in children. When kids have to stay in offices, caseworkers have to stay with them, too, finding their own child care arrangements and adding to the burden of an already stressful job, the caseworker said.
Jennifer Donnals, a spokeswoman for the department, said Friday that it was “not a violation of policy for children to stay in DCS offices during the nighttime hours until an appropriate placement is found.” In these instances, “dedicated staff provide a safe environment until an appropriate placement is found,” she said.
“The reality is that children frequently come in to care late in the evening, and it can take several hours to find them appropriate placements in foster homes or treatment facilities, especially when working with sibling groups or teenagers. . . We have accommodations in our offices to help provide comfort to children in these temporary situations, including blankets, cots and air mattresses, food, toys and other supplies.”
In her response, Donnals did not address other questions, including how frequently kids taken into custody are sleeping in state offices.
A space for children in Nashville awaiting placements in foster care closed for renovation in July, Donnals said. The Davidson County DCS Resource Linkage Office reopened Sunday, aided by donations from the Byard Family Legacy Fund, a charity founded by Tennessee Titans player Kevin Byard.
During renovations, “children were brought to the Davy Crockett office space more often,” Donnals said.
The department did not answer questions about whether DCS chief Jennifer Nichols and other agency leaders were aware that kids are sleeping in state office buildings.
And Donnals did not address the circumstances of the girl in the pink hoodie seen on video sleeping directly on the floor, who lacked the comfort items she described, including a blanket, cot, or air mattress, visible in screen shots shared with the department last week.
There are roughly 9,000 kids in state custody at any given time who need a foster family, a spot in a residential treatment facility or placement with family or friends of family.
The agency, like its counterparts in other states, has often had a bumpy history of providing adequate care to kids on its watch. In 2,000, the state entered what would become 17 years of court-ordered oversight of its treatment of kids coming into custody due to “systemic failure to protect Tennessee’s most vulnerable children and to provide them with legally required services.”
The lawsuit was prompted by kids being placed in unsuitable spaces after being taken into custody. Court oversight ended in 2017.
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