Governor Bill Lee appointed Dr. Jennifer Nichols Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services in January 2019.

NASHVILLE, TN – We asked Department of Children’s Services (DCS) Communications Director Rob Johnson for information about DCS, its organizational history, and its Special Response Teams. We asked him to set up interviews with Angel Miller, who heads investigations in Davidson and Mid-Cumberland Region, Amy Coble who heads up all DCS Investigations from headquarters, and DCS Commissioner Jennifer Nichols. 

Johnson said “No” to all interviews and answered exactly two of the dozen or so questions we asked.  First, the number and gender of DCS employees: 507 – males, 2720 – females, 3227 – total.

Second, were Child Protective Services (CPS) and Office of Child Safety just different names for the same thing? “Yes. The Office of Child Safety includes CPS,” Johnson answered. 

There are three other main divisions within DCS. They are Office of Child Health, Office of Child Programs, and Office of Juvenile Justice. DCS Commissioner Jim Henry completely reshaped the Office of Child Safety between 2013-2014.

Investigators in Child Protective Services (CPS) were assigned to each of the 12 DCS regions and became part of a centralized staff to look into allegations of severe abuse and neglect. As Johnson said, they work all over the state but under the Office of Child Safety.

CPS investigators are more like law enforcement officers because they are trained and are more likely to take neglected or abused children into custody. Caseworkers who worked assessments are more likely to be engaged with families to get them services they need whether or not their children are put into foster homes. 

The reorganization was completed statewide in Spring 2014. In addition, the DCS began a new training academy in partnership with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation that taught best practices in investigative techniques so field practice would be uniform across all of Tennessee’s 95 counties. 

Under Henry, DCS brought the new TFACTS computer system on line in 2013. TFACTS tracked reports of child abuse, documented DCS investigations, tracked services DCS provided to foster children, and even tracked how often caseworkers visited them. The Child Abuse Hotline was improved in 2013, too. Those initial intake calls help determine whether an investigator or an assessment caseworker would take the case.

Sources told the Tribune that the old guard CPS field personnel, including regional administrators and deputy regional administrators, didn’t like the reorganization even though it worked better than the haphazard operation and poor outcomes of the old system. 

At the regional offices where the rubber meets the road, staffers were frustrated because HQ would roll out new ideas with little understanding or regard for the front line staff. It caused a morale problem.

“At the beginning, the regional staff experienced much of their relationship with the central office as a one-way street, with the central office setting expectations, making demands, foisting and then abandoning initiatives and new programs, with limited consultation or input. “  (p 30, Lessons Learned, a 2019 study of Tennessee’s court-ordered reform of its child welfare system)

The old guard didn’t like the new TFACTS computer tracking system. It was hard enough running down fly balls from Central Office but they had to work with a bunch of computer nerds who had no idea about the day-to-day demands of fieldwork. TFACTS went live in 2010 but was plagued by a backlog of 1,750 defects. 

TFACTS wasn’t “fixed” until DCS brought in staff with field experience to work with the IT Team. Together they created a help desk and a group of region-based IT customer support staff to receive and respond to complaints. 

It took three years to iron out the wrinkles and build trust between HQ and frontline workers and IT experts. Central to all those efforts was the DCS practice model, Child and Family Teams (CFTs). Over time the CFT model changed and input from fieldworkers drove some of those changes. 

Like Camelot, for a brief and shining moment DCS was blessed with peace and progress. In December 2015 Judge William Campbell announced that DCS had achieved all the relevant provisions of the 2001 Settlement Agreement.  (See https://tntribune.com/federal-oversight-of-dcs/oversight) The court dismissed the case in July 2017.

It appears that the old guard did not lose their autonomy, as they feared they would. However, that does not mean DCS leadership has abandoned its centralized structure or ceded control over DCS operations in its 13 regional offices.

“That organization is really top heavy.”  Family Law Attorney Connie Reguli

In September 2019, DCS began a reorganization to merge CPS Investigations and Assessments under the Office of Child Safety. Under Henry they had been divided between Child Programs and Child Safety. In her 2020 annual message DCS Commissioner Jennifer Nichols noted the change. “This will improve the department’s response to child protection and prevention. It will also lay the groundwork for the new federal requirements under the Family First Prevention Services Act,” Nichols said. 

“That organization is really top heavy.”  Family Law Attorney Connie Reguli

Perhaps, but Henry’s 2013 restructuring had good outcomes and the 2019 overhaul hasn’t worked that well. There is widespread disaffection in the DCS ranks, arbitrary and vindictive leadership reported in the regional offices as well as in DCS’s central Nashville office. Apparently, nobody at DCS is having much fun. And the team spirit former Commissioners Viola Miller and Jim Henry created during their tenures is gone.

“That organization is really top heavy,” said Family Law Attorney Connie Reguli.

She has been through five DCS commissioners while representing clients at odds with DCS. She said it’s always the same story.

DCS budget requests have increased an average of $50 million/yr. for the last seven years.

“The Commissioner comes in every year to the legislature and starts whining and crying about how her social workers are only making $32,000 a year and she’s got all these heavy people at the top of the payroll who do nothing but sit in the commissioner’s office,” Reguli said.  

DCS budget requests have increased an average of $50 million/yr. for the last seven years. (See table). Nine of 16 top DCS officials make at least $150,000/yr. Salaries of the other seven top earners are not public but are likely all over $100,000/yr. and top leadership salaries total more than $2 million/yr. Twelve regional administrator salaries total $1,090,512, an average of about $90,000 each. Eighteen program directors cost $1,298,376, an average of about $72,000.

Join the Conversation

8 Comments

  1. So I’m guessing it’s safe to assume this is to blame for the over zealous workers that are removing children from parents based on poverty and their biased opinions about the ideal situation children need to be in. It’s hard to express the intense emotions parents experience when their children are taken and then the impossible demands put on them in order to be reunified. I have personally been victim of this flawed and politically motivated system and am left with unimaginable mental anguish from dealing with a system in which my newborn was taken for her “best interest” which is the front put on to disguise the real reason for this abduction of my baby, poverty. Now almost a year after her removal I have jumped through hoops of fire and done all that’s been asked of me despite the insanely complicated demands and systemic barriers I faced and yet I’m still without my child due to “short staffing issues that have prevented the workers ability to drug test me as required”. So I will make it simple to understand what I’m saying, this system has taken my child and despite my completion of my requirements I’m left suffering without my baby because the people who took her can’t due their part of the requirements that they themselves put in place. It’s the most frustrating and devastating thing I’ve faced in my adult life. I’ve heard horror stories about DCS but never could truely understand the pain and destruction they cause until I became a victim myself.

  2. If the Commissioner is saying to the legislature, “We’ve got all these heavy people at the top of the payroll who do nothing but sit in the commissioners office.”, then as a tax payer and child advocate, I say the legislature needs to investigate that claim and clean house of the “do-nothings”.

  3. Thank you Peter for bringing this story into public view.
    DCF does not need more money, they instead need to stop stealing children from families! They need to totally abolish the ASFA and enforce the FFPSA. The more children they steal, the more money that is put into their pockets.
    My five grandchildren were stolen from my daughter because she was a victim of domestic violence. Due to lies and false accusations, by caseworkers, I was not able to bring my grandchildren home, where they were living less than 6 months before they were stolen by DCF in Florida.
    In Hawaii where I reside, a six-year-old girl was recently murdered by the adopted parents who taped her mouth and nose with duck tape and put her into a dog kennel. Then the 12-year-old sibling had to help the adopter to carry the dog cage with her sister’s dead body in it, outside.
    This is happing in every state. Kathryn Joyce wrote about it in “The Child Catchers”
    THIS IS NOT CHILD PROTECTION, THIS TRAFFICKING OF CHILDREN FOR PROFIT AND MAKING THE SEVEN TOP EARNERS RICHER.

  4. The director should be resolving the top heaviness. Some of these people should be performing field work. What are the qualifications for these people if they are in leadership position, they should know their subordinates duties. How can you rate or advocate for the social workers/case managers/clients if leaders never go out. What about seeing the struggles of the clients what referrals/training is offered to help the client. The social workers/case managers are over worked, over loaded in cases and very under paid. It is one thing to assume but to actually see what is needed in each case. These positions are more than a desk job these people need to have compassion and empathy for those in need or learn what it is like to be working or living in undesirable conditions. The way to fix a situation is to get involved with open eyes. How can I help this client. “Henry’s 2013 restructuring had good outcomes”, so what happened was it nepotism? What happened to ‘the team spirit former Commissioners Viola Miller and Jim Henry created’. Are these positions really needed. Use some of the money to raise salaries for the lower paid DCS workers.

  5. It is set up to give good paying jobs to the wives of politicians. Is that so surprising? They won’t tell you anything. Their battle flag should read privacy – we love hippa – we can’t reveal anything . It is all private!!

  6. It’s all about the money and truly not the welfare of our children. They definitely don’t deserve those kinds of salaries and actually do their jobs and do them correctly and best interest of child not because they get that salary bumped the more children they rip from loving parents just so they can increase funding and their pockets which is suppose to help care for our children while they have control and send them God knows where doesn’t inform or help parents reunite with their children. Instead they make it impossible and difficult to accomplish that and in meantime our children are suffering abuse getting killed going missing commiting suicide and running away. When they had loving parents that would never allow those things to happen to their children no matter what. Wheres the justice for our children and us huh? DCS an every intenity involved and connected!

  7. True shit big facts…they took my baby to collect tax ..if you read in the bible it said Mary and Joseph ran from town to keep Jesus from being collected as a tax .bible says obey adversary which are polictians judges police because they will kill you or separate you from your family .. juvenile court Memphis TN is where children are auctioned(slave block) held for ransom..lawyers are hired to collect taxes police hired to kill if you don’t submitt to their rules..

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.