Scathing audit of Tennessee Department of Children’s Services finds kids are placed in danger
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)
The mission of the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services is to protect vulnerable kids, but a new report paints a detailed and disturbing portrait of a state agency that has repeatedly placed children in harm’s way.
The 164-page audit released Tuesday by the state Comptroller chronicles multiple failures by DCS to keep kids safe once they have been taken into state custody — typically after they have already been abused or neglected in their own homes.
“The safety, permanency, and well-being of Tennessee’s most vulnerable children is in jeopardy,” the report concludes.
The report was released ahead of a legislative hearing Wednesday at which DCS leaders are expected to be closely questioned by state lawmakers. Months of media coverage has featured kids forced to sleep on office floors and in hospital beds, while social workers struggle with enormous caseloads and turnover among staff is at an all-time high.
The Comptroller’s report makes public new details about the dire and damaging conditions children have been subjected to while in the custody of the department.
Children placed in residential facilities who reported sexual abuse or harassment were left “remaining in potentially abusive situations for weeks before the investigator spoke to them,” the audit found.
An abuse hotline took as many as 40 days to pass along incidents of sexual abuse of kids in state custody to child abuse investigators, who then sometimes took weeks to do their own investigations.
Auditors found 34 instances involving children in state custody whose reports of inappropriate sexual conduct weren’t investigated by the agency at all. Those allegations, that may have involved child perpetrators, were reported to law enforcement, but the audit notes that DCS officials failed to investigate whether the adults charged with supervising these children failed to do their jobs.
“The Commissioner and Deputy Commissioner of Juvenile Justice should ensure that DCS has a robust response system that supports zero tolerance of sexual abuse and sexual harassment within all residential facilities,” the audit said.
A DCS contractor’s employee was the subject of 16 internal investigations for reported physical abuse of children in state custody over a two year period, but continued to be allowed to work with kids. In May 2022, he was indicted on charges of aggravated assault and reckless endangerment with a deadly weapon after firing on children who had fled a Nashville residential facility in a car. The report makes no mention of injuries to the children, but notes the car crashed.
“When management does not identify staff with multiple investigations of misconduct, such as those involved in the aggravated assault and reckless endangerment case discussed above, similar tragedies are likely, and management is therefore increasing the risk of harm to children,” the audit said.
And, the report notes, kids who should have been in foster care homes spent up to 38 nights sleeping in inappropriate temporary housing, including DCS offices.
“Children in temporary settings do not always have food, clothes, beds or a shower,” the audit noted. “Given placement shortages, the use of temporary settings when no other long-term placements can be found has transitioned from a rare emergency occurrence to an increasingly necessary department practice.”
State Sen. Heidi Campbell, D-Nashville, and Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, in a news release on Tuesday noted they have created a website documenting DCS shortcomings. The pair pointedly criticized Gov. Bill Lee and the state’s Republican leadership for blocking a bill this year that would have capped caseloads.
“Children, who came to DCS because they suffered neglect or abuse, are being victimized a second time because the governor and supermajority have failed to invest in the people responsible for their care,” Johnson said.
Campbell noted the crisis at DCS is not news to state leaders.
“There is no excuse for inaction, halfhearted fixes or more delay,” she said. “The department’s top responsibility is to keep children out of harm’s way and we will sound the alarm until the state lives up to that promise.”
DCS Commissioner Margie Quin has been in the job since September, tapped by Gov. Bill Lee to address crises within the agency, which receives about $1.1 billion annually in federal and state funding to investigate child abuse and neglect, run the state’s foster care system and oversee Tennessee’s juvenile justice programs.
Last month, Quin requested a $156 million budget increase to raise caseworker salaries, pay private residential centers higher rates and create more suitable temporary homes while the state subcontracts foster care recruiting and management to build up a more adequate pool of foster homes.
That budget increase, if approved by lawmakers, would not take effect until July.
Lee has said he believes the state has some options to expedite financial aid to the agency, possibly using funds within the current state budget, but has declined to call a special legislative session to address the crisis.
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