COVID cases among kids in DCS custody mount

The department has failed to respond to inquiries on whether it is vaccinating eligible youth

By: - September 7, 2021 5:00 am
See nothing, hear nothing, say nothing: children will bear the brunt of the state's mishandling of the COVID crisis. (Photo illustration: John Partipilo)

(Photo illustration: John Partipilo)

At least 83 kids living in residential treatment facilities that contract with the Department of Children’s Services to provide round-the-clock therapeutic care have tested positive for COVID-19 since July 1, part of a surge in child infections across the state.

This summer’s escalation in childhood infections — 50,795 Tennessee school-aged children have tested positive since July 1 — has led to bitter school board fights over mask requirements, at least three lawsuits and school closures even as the administration of Gov. Bill Lee resists giving local districts the power to make their own health and safety decisions for children in their communities.

Tennessee Department of Children's Services logoIn private care facilities for kids in DCS custody, those decisions are not subject to public debate.

The nonprofit and for-profit organizations, which provide psychiatric, behavioral and other care to abused and neglected children in state custody, are given guidance from the Department of Children’s Services, but make their own decisions about how to care for children during the pandemic. Most provide their own on-site classrooms and children sleep, eat, play, study and live together 24-7. Some also house kids who are not in custody.

As of August 31, 154 kids in these facilities remain in quarantine, while another 48 are awaiting results, according to data provided by DCS.

At Youth Villages, a nonprofit that provides residential care to kids, 29 kids are in quarantine after potential coronavirus exposure and three girls remain in isolation with positive tests at their Rose Center for Girls facility in Bartlett, Tennessee. The organization operates in 14 cities across Tennessee.

DCS has thus far failed to respond to requests from two Democratic lawmakers or the Tennessee Lookout about whether it is following federal vaccine guidance issued by the Department of Human Services Administration for Children and Families which include urging by federal child welfare officials to take immediate steps to ensure kids in state custody, and those who have recently aged out after turning 18, receive a COVID vaccine.

Tamara Williams, Rose Center’s director, said Youth Villages has implemented its own mask requirement for youth and staff, requires social distancing, frequent hand-washing and increased cleaning and disinfecting as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Youth Villages campuses house children eight-years-old and older in individual living clusters. When a child is required to be quarantined after potential exposure to COVID, they are kept with kids in those housing groups to prevent transmission, she said.

“A strict plan has been implemented anytime there is concern of possible exposure to include quarantine, isolation, and contact tracing,” Williams said. “When it comes to quarantine for non-positive COVID youth, it has been our experience that it is best to quarantine groups of children together as a precaution to reduce transmission. So, children who are in the same cottage, courtyard or group home remain together with frequent assessments by our nursing staff.”

Youth Villages has also “taken advantage of vaccinations for all eligible candidates,” she said.

At the Center for Success and Independence, a residential treatment facility providing mental health, drug and alcohol treatment to youth who’ve interacted with the Department of Children’s Services, 65 children have tested positive since the onset of the pandemic; 47 kids remain in quarantine after potential exposures.

At New Beginnings Academy in Roane County, a 56-bed mental health treatment center for boys ages 12 to 17 years old who have been abused or neglected, 35 boys remain in quarantine. A total of 53 kids have contracted COVID since the pandemic began.

At least 10 boys currently have coronavirus and another 24 remain in quarantine at Standing Tall Music City, a residential facility for boys 12 to 18 years old near downtown Nashville. The facility, like others that contract with DCS, has its own on-site classrooms on a campus that has a 50-bed dorm facility capacity.

No one at these three facilities responded to requests for information about their COVID policies.

Wilder Youth Development Center in Fayette County, the only residential facility for kids operated by DCS, reported no current COVID cases or quarantines. The 120-bed, locked-down facility houses boys 13-18 years old who have been committed to state custody by juvenile courts. Since the start of the pandemic, 75 kids have contracted COVID.

DCS guidance to privately run facilities housing kids in state custody tells each facility to “develop their own internal protocol/procedures for mask requirements, screening of visitors and staff, and number of people allowed during campus visits. DCS continues to encourage all providers to follow the latest CDC and TN Department of Health guidance when developing requirements.”

It includes no mandated COVID protocols.

DCS, like all state child welfare agencies, has been given its own guidance by federal authorities on COVID protocols, including vaccination and outreach efforts.

The department has thus far failed to respond to requests from two Democratic lawmakers or the Tennessee Lookout about its vaccination efforts. Federal vaccine guidance issued by the Department of Human Services Administration for Children and Families to DCS, include urging by federal child welfare officials to take immediate steps to ensure kids in state custody, and those who have recently aged out after turning 18, receive a COVID vaccine.

Tennessee Department of Children’s Services guidance to privately run facilities housing kids in state custody tells each facility to “develop their own internal protocol/procedures” but includes no mandated COVID protocols.

Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, and Sen. Heidi Campbell, D-Nashville, in July sought “up-to-date data on COVID-19 vaccinations amongst the children who are wards of DCS, whether incarcerated, in state foster care or in the care of a third-party home” and the “department’s plan to ensure all eligible children receive a vaccine moving forward.”

They have received no answers, Johnson said last week.

In response to Lookout questions about each of the recommendations by the federal agency, spokeswoman Jennifer Donnals said the department “has worked tirelessly since the start of the pandemic to do just that and will continue to take the appropriate steps to help keep our children, staff and providers safe and healthy.  The department has issued guidance on vaccines to DCS staff, providers and foster parents. We have updated our policy regarding routine healthcare of the children in our custody.”

The federal guidance to child welfare agencies was issued July 7.

After the federal guidance to DCS was issued, DCS instead watered down recommendations to private providers caring for kids in state custody. The new guidance eliminates wording about the critical importance of vaccines, replaced instead with more neutral wording.

A previous version of its guidance, dated March 18, says: “vaccinations against this infection have been determined to be critically important in controlling the pandemic and getting ‘back to normal.’ Vaccines are deemed to be highly effective in prevention severe infections and death.”

The updated guidance eliminates nearly all information about the vaccine. Instead, the document, updated July 20, includes one sentence about the COVID vaccine:

“Foster parents and other care providers are entrusted with authority and responsibility for the daily upbringing and care of children in their care consistent with the child’s individualized circumstances and in consultation with the child’s medical provider, including routine authority for matters such as well-care treatment, vaccination, vision, and hearing.”

The revamped guidelines came eight days after a widely publicized controversy over providing vaccine outreach to eligible children ended in the firing of Dr. Michelle Fiscus, the state’s former top vaccine official with the Department of Health. Dr. Fiscus said she was made a scapegoat by her bosses at the Tennessee Department of Health after some Republican lawmakers got angry over state efforts to provide vaccine information to teens, including information about the “mature minor doctrine,” a legal precedent allowing kids over the age of 14 to get vaccines without their parents’ permission.

 

 

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

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.

MORE FROM AUTHOR