Tennessee DCS situation represents abject failure of government, lawmakers

November 30, 2022 6:03 am
A photo from the Tennessee Department of Children's Services Facebook page shows a happy family dancing in front of a Christmas tree--hardly the scene for many children in the custody of DCS.

A photo from the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services Facebook page shows a happy family dancing in front of a Christmas tree–hardly the scene for many children in the custody of DCS.

When Tennessee Lookout reporter Anita Wadhwani first reported in August 2021 that children in custody of the state were left sleeping on the floors of state office buildings, some surrounded by mounds of clothing and dirty diapers, readers were outraged. 

One might think that Gov. Bill Lee, who frequently touts his bona fides as a Christian family man, would have taken action immediately to find housing for those kids and get them off of floors—because ‘in state custody’ doesn’t literally mean ‘sleeping in state office buildings.’

But he didn’t, and the situation at the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services has become more dismal for the children with whom the department is charged with caring for.

During Lee’s budget hearing for DCS on Nov. 18, Commissioner Margie Quin told Lee that children who become “disruptive” are whisked off to be stowed in hospitals. 

By damn, I’d be disruptive as hell if I was a child who had been taken from my home, no matter how traumatic and abusive that home might have been, and instead of being given help, was left sleeping on an office building floor. And that’s the minimum: We know nothing about how or what these children are being fed, how their toiletries and hygiene is being handled or what kind of education is being provided.

Charles Dickens couldn’t have come up with a more hard-hearted scenario in his depictions of Industrial Age orphans. 

Now, we find out many of the children being stashed in hospitals have disabilities. Some are in wheelchairs. Some have tracheostomies. A staff attorney told Wadhwani, before he stopped responding, that some of these children have “sitters” with them in hospitals but others are there alone. 

Another photo from the Tennessee Department of Children's Service Facebook page presents an unrealistic scene for children in state custody.
Another photo from the Tennessee Department of Children’s Service Facebook page presents an unrealistic scene for children in state custody.

Jesus wept. 

During the same budget meeting in which Quin relayed the information about the state’s use of hospitals as foster care, she also said there are enough privately-operated residential treatment facilities for these children with disabilities, but the state cannot afford to pay the rates required by these facilities.

Tennessee is sitting on a $10 billion surplus and has another $1.5 billion in our rainy day fund and according to a May report from the Pew Charitable Trust, could run the entirety of state government for more than a month off the rainy day fund alone. 

That Tennessee is warehousing “our” children—as Republican lawmakers like to call them when they are preaching about the dangers of drag shows—and even worse, children with disabilities, is a disgraceful failure at all levels of state government and by leaders of both parties.

Lee spent millions on soft-focus ads for his recent reelection campaign, including one tellingly titled, “Priorities.”

“We’ve made investing in children and families, moms, a top priority  . .  and making Tennessee a better state for foster and adoptive families,” Lee said in the ad. “Your family, my family: We’re just getting started.”

Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson of Franklin recently tweeted: “When it comes to family values, there is no compromise — because every life is worth protecting and our conservative values are always worth defending.”

When state lawmakers like Lee, Johnson, and other Republican legislators profess to be Christians who are for families, I guess they only mean their own families. 

But this failure has a host of parents. 

Quin, who has been DCS commissioner for a few months, bears the least of the blame but now has the responsibility for finding a solution and restoring public trust in her department. Yet, even though Lee told her directly that “It’s important that we in particular provide a level of transparency,” Quin declined a request for an interview from the Lookout, nor, to my knowledge, has she provided any media interviews. 

She’s got nothing to lose by confronting the matter directly but now DCS under her leadership appears to be  not only withholding information but proactively hiding from the public. 

For that matter, where are Democratic lawmakers? Sen. Heidi Campbell of Nashville and Knoxville Rep. Gloria Johnson have been outspoken about the crisis at DCS and along with nine other members of the Democratic House and Senate Caucuses, fired off a letter to Lee asking him to take immediate action.  

But what of the remaining 22 Democratic members of the legislature? They didn’t even care enough to sign the letter, much less scream to the high heavens about how we are treating emotionally and physically fragile children? 

Here’s a great opportunity for Democrats to show Tennesseans that they can serve a valuable role as the loyal opposition but are shirking it. 

Government exists to serve several purposes, including the utilitarian one of doing the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Few rational people, including me, oppose fiscal conservatism, but fiscal conservatism runs amok when it constrains the well-being of our residents as is now the case in Tennessee. 

Funding is part of the solution. Quin has asked Lee for an additional $156 million which could be used to pay social workers a higher wage and to hire more, perhaps making DCS work a more appealing employment option by dint of salary and lower case loads.

But our governor and state legislature have plenty of tools at their disposal besides money. Not least is the bully pulpit Lee has rightly earned by his overwhelming win to a second term in office. 

And the legislature, quick to hold special sessions to litigate COVID masking procedures and to approve a nearly $900-million incentive package for Ford Motor Co., should do the right thing and call one that would at the least demonstrate a modicum of concern about the welfare of our neediest children.

There’s something particularly bitter about the thought of children, unwanted and uncared for, at what should be the most festive time of the year, and even as DCS posts photos of clip-art happy families cavorting in front of Christmas trees on social media. It’s tone deaf at best and grossly callous at worst—but unfortunately, callous and insensitive has become the norm for Tennessee.

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J. Holly McCall
J. Holly McCall

Holly McCall has been a fixture in Tennessee media and politics for decades. She covered city hall for papers in Columbus, Ohio and Joplin, Missouri before returning to Tennessee with the Nashville Business Journal. Holly brings a deep wealth of knowledge about Tennessee’s political processes and players and likes nothing better than getting into the weeds of how political deals are made.