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 to 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.

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