NASHVILLE, TN – Families who came to testify before the House Children & Family Affairs Subcommittee on Wednesday February 9, 2022 were not allowed to address lawmakers. Committee Chairwoman Mary Littleton had a list of speakers two days before the meeting, as required, but Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton did not approve them. So they sat in the audience waiting for a chance to speak that never came.
DCS Commissioner Jennifer Nichols showed a video presentation to lawmakers highlighting DCS operations and she outlined future plans for the department that keeps asking for more money every year while it has been taking more children into custody every year.
Several DCS officials also briefed the committee. Among them were Sandra Wilson, Deputy Commissioner of Child Programs, Martha Shirk HR Director, and General Counsel Doug Dimond. Nine Republicans and two Democrats attended the hearing.
The Republicans were quite solicitous to the DCS brass, told them what a hard job they had to do, and Rep. John Rick Eldridge offered Nichols some advice: recruit from 2-year colleges to find more workers. DCS does hire workers with a 2-year degrees but casework requires a Bachelor’s degree. DCS has 554 empty positions.
“Three or four times Nichols told the committee to give them a call if any of their constituents was having a problem and they would find a solution. That is such baloney,” said Connie Reguli, a Family Law attorney who handles a lot of DCS cases.
Reguli said Representative Jason Hodges called Nichol’s office and met with DCS officials about a case in Montgomery County last year.
“They made him sign a confidentiality agreement that he would not disclose any of the meeting details with the family and he was not allowed to bring any member of the family with him. It was all one-sided,” Reguli said.
There has been progress in the case in spite of, not because of, DCS intervention. In fact, DCS prolonged the case unnecessarily and harassed the parents by having felony arrest warrants issued against them. The Tribune confirmed with Montgomery County District Attorney Robert Nash that DCS misled his office and when he found out, he withdrew the warrants. (See https://tntribune.com/twas-the-night-before-christmas/)
Nichols presented a number of slides showing custody numbers, number of foster homes, and calls to the Tennessee Child Abuse Hotline. She didn’t tell lawmakers the number of children who entered DCS custody and the number who exited custody back to their birth families last year. DCS has not disclosed those numbers publicly since 2013-14.
“The majority of children who enter DCS custody, actually about 80%, are reunited with their families,” Nichols told the committee. According to the federal Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS), Tennessee’s reunification rate was between 55.2%-57.8% in years 2015-2019.
The Tribune used statistics Nichols presented to the committee to verify her 80% reunification figure.
Here’s the math: 8,932 children in custody, up from 8,829 last year; Nichols said the number of children in foster care was 8,211 in Feb. 2021 and 8,359 in Feb. this year; she said 1,764 kids did not go into foster care because they were placed with relatives or family friends; adoptions have been running around 1200 per year for several years. But there are more kids (1764) waiting for adoption than actually adopted. If you keep subtracting these numbers what you get is a maximum of 2,493 children who could have been reunified with their families last year.
According to the DCS 2013-14 annual report, 3,545 kids were reunited with their parents. Eight years later, DCS is returning at most 2,500. That is 1,000 fewer reunifications.
Nichols decried the lack of foster homes to take care of kids they take into custody. Apparently, it’s a common problem in many states.
Why does DCS keep taking kids into custody when there aren’t enough foster homes to take them? And why isn’t DCS doing a better job of reuniting kids with their parents?
The families who came to speak have stories about what happened to them and they have answers to both those questions. First, if you are taking more kids into custody than you can care for, maybe you should stop taking so many children into custody. Secondly, if you stopped wrongfully taking our children in the first place, if you stopped using permanency plans and stopped delaying court hearings to block parents from getting their kids back, maybe you wouldn’t be so embarrassed about your dismal reunification numbers.