Early Childhood

Controversy Erupts Anew Over Tenn. Child-Services Agency

By Joetta L. Sack — December 03, 2003 2 min read
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In the latest development in an ongoing controversy, Gov. Phil Bredesen has ordered major changes in the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services after a court-ordered audit found the agency was mismanaging many of its obligations to the children it serves.

Gov. Phil Bredesen

But a children’s rights group that contends not enough is being done to remedy the situation has filed another motion related to the case. Filed Nov. 20, the motion asks a federal court in Nashville, Tenn., to intervene because top state officials, the plaintiffs claim, are not doing their jobs.

The agency, which oversees children in foster care, child protective services, and the juvenile-justice system, has had long-standing problems tracking and monitoring the care of those children.

An audit written by a court-appointed monitor this fall found that, among other violations, the department had not properly tracked repeat juvenile offenders, had no proof that its social workers were making the required visits to children in foster care, and did not have a central system for documenting abuses of children in foster homes. The monitor reviewed more than 1,000 case files.

Late last month, Gov. Bredesen, a first-term Democrat, fired the head of the agency, Michael Miller, and appointed a seven-member task force to figure out how the state would meet its obligations under a July 2001 court settlement stemming from a lawsuit alleging similar problems.

That suit, Brian A. v. State of Tennessee, was brought by the New York City-based advocacy group Children’s Rights, the same group that also filed a contempt-of-court motion against the governor and the DCS commissioner. The 2001 lawsuit charged numerous violations by the department. The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee agreed, and the state was ordered to comply with a list of recommendations within 54 months.

The state is now in the 28th month of that agreement. Annual audits track the state’s progress.

The Nov. 20 action by Children’s Rights asks the federal court to hold the governor and the commissioner of the children’s services department in contempt of court for failing to comply with the agreement. It also asks for appointment of a special administrator to oversee the settlement.

“We’ve waited over two years for the governor and DCS to make good on the terms of the agreement. And they haven’t even figured out what needs to be done,” Marcia Robinson Lowry, the executive director of Children’s Rights, said in a statement. “To protect the children we represent, we have no choice but to ask the judge to intervene to force compliance and give these children the benefits they need.”

Critical Issue

Gov. Bredesen’s spokeswoman, Lydia Lenker, said last week that the issue was “very critical” to him, but that no timeline had been set for the working group’s actions. The governor’s office has already begun the search for a new commissioner of the children’s service agency.

Mr. Bredesen said that he had confidence in Mr. Miller’s ability to run the agency, but that the agency needed to head in a different direction.

“Over the last several weeks, it has become clear to me that the challenges DCS faces today are on a vastly different scale and necessitate a different kind of leader at the helm altogether,” the governor said in a statement announcing Mr. Miller’s departure. “Given the seriousness of the situation at the department of children’s services, we need a strong manager who has experience bringing about the kind of deep cultural change necessary to move the department forward.”

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