NASHVILLE, TN – In its recently concluded session, the Tennessee General Assembly failed to pass any measures to reform operations at the Department of Children’s Services (DCS).

A proposal to allow for a second medical assessment in cases when kids are removed from the family home based on one expert medical opinion was not put in front of Children & Family Affairs Subcommittee.

In Texas, parents who are suspected of physically harming their children are entitled to a second medical opinion. Prior to September 2021, doctors contracted by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services were the only ones who  decided which injuries were accidents and which were abuse. That practice has resulted in the wrongful taking of kids in Tennessee. (see Xmas)

Another proposal to have a family advocate appointed at the beginning of a DCS case was introduced by Representative Terri Lynn Weaver, a Republican from DeKalb County. Mary Littleton, Chairwoman of the Children & Family Affairs Subcommittee took it off the calendar, effectively killing it.

“Parents have every constitutional right over their kids, period, ” Weaver said. She said that an advocate who is present at all proceedings related to a DCS investigation can keep parents from getting mowed over by the system.

“At times the court system doesn’t get it right and so it’s vital that we do all that we can to keep families together. Reunification is the key,” she said.

Time limits on DCS adjudications did not come to a full House vote. Jason Powell, (D, House District 53) introduced a six-month time limit and it passed the subcommittee but didn’t get out of Civil Justice Committee. So it died.

According to Powell, DCS objected to the bill because there is already a 30-day rule regarding time limits for hearings after a child is taken into custody. DCS routinely extends cases beyond 15 months that allows them to sue for termination of parental rights.

“There is a rule but they never enforce the rule, so there has to be a statute,” said Family Law Attorney Connie Reguli. 

Representative Clay Doggett (R, Lawrenceburg) tried to get rid of anonymous reporting on the Child Abuse Hotline. He couldn’t drum up enough support so he changed his bill to require some sort of corroborating evidence before DCS can obtain an ex parte order from a judge to remove a child from the family home. That version was sent to Summer Study in the Children & Family Affairs Subcommittee and never came to a vote.

Representative Gloria Johnson (D, Knoxville) introduced a bill requiring the department to maintain staffing levels of case managers so that each region would  not exceed an average of 12 active cases relating to initial assessments, 12 children monitored and supervised relating to ongoing in-home services, or 13 children in active cases in which the children are in out-of-home placements relating to ongoing services. The bill failed to pass in the Children & Family Affairs Subcommittee.

“Sixteen million was the fiscal note,” Johnson said. “They can give $500 million to the stadium but you can’t give $16 million to Tennessee’s vulnerable kids,” she said.

The national standard caseload for social workers is 12. Many states have passed caseload limits, including Indiana, Texas, Florida, Alabama, and Maryland. “They have far more successes with the children. The families are very happy about what’s going on. Their outcomes are great and their employees are sane. Their employees are feeling valued and they are able to take care of the kids on their caseload,” Johnson said.

She said it is nearly impossible for Democratic lawmakers to move legislation because for every Democrat on a committee or subcommittee there are two Republicans. The House Speaker determines who and how many members are assigned to various house committees. Ditto with Senate committees. Lt. Governor Randy McNally makes those calls on the Senate side.

“They stop every single one of the bills they want to stop in subcommittee,” Johnson told the Tribune.

She said if there is something a Republican representative likes about a Democratic proposal, they are likely to steal it and put it in a Republican-sponsored bill. It happened to her last year with an education bill.

If there was ever a cause worth crossing the aisle for, children’s welfare would be the one. But neither Democrats nor Republicans joined hands to set standards and press for changes at the troubled department.

“It’s not getting better. It’s getting worse,” Johnson said.

For the first time, the DCS budget increased in 2021-2022 to just over a billion dollars. The budget will increase an additional $100 million in 2022-23. 

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