By Peter White
On July 22, Governor Bill Lee announced that Jennifer Nichols, Commissioner of Children’s Services (DCS), is stepping down. Allegations of misconduct against the now-former commissioner include ballooning budgets, mismanagement, and bad outcomes for Tennessee’s neediest children as a result.
Every year since 2014, DCS has taken more kids from their families than the previous year. It runs a statewide network of foster homes, half of them contract providers, and DCS has a staggering 600 caseworker openings.
The new commissioner, Margie Quin, is currently the Executive Director of End Slavery Tennessee. The group fights sex trafficking of children. Prior to that, she spent 25 years with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.
Nichols spent about as long as a prosecutor in Shelby County with the Special Victims Unit. The Governor has picked people with criminal justice backgrounds to lead Tennessee’s child services agency but neither of them have experience as social workers.
Lee has been outspoken regarding the issue of the sexual abuse of children, saying he wants to stop child sex traffickers and he wants a tough cop to lead DCS. But what DCS has been accused of doing is prosecuting parents of potential sex victims before they are trafficked—like the 2002 Speilberg Film, Minority Report.
As numerous studies have shown, foster care is where many kids get sexually abused. A John Hopkins study found the risk four times greater in foster homes than living with birth parents. In a New Jersey study 36.5 percent of child sexual abusers were foster parents. More than half of the sex trafficking victims recovered in 2013 during nationwide FBI raids were from group homes or foster homes.
In 2018 alone, the US foster care system received 263,000 children, according to the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS). In Tennessee, DCS took 15,404 minors from their family home in 2018. Most of them ended up in foster care.
Advocates against the current operation of DCS say that the Governor should direct the new commissioner to start reducing the number of kids put in foster care in Tennessee and start increasing the services provided to families with kids.
Advocates also say that many of the families who have their kids taken would be better served if they received social services like child care, health insurance, food supplements, drug counseling, etc. But for years DCS has spent the vast majority of its budget on foster care and just a pittance on family services.
ProPublica and NBC are launching a national investigation into termination of parental rights by child welfare agencies around the country. You can contact NBC and ProPublica here:
Quin will assume the role of DCS Commissioner effective September 1.