NewsNewsChannel 5 InvestigatesDCS Investigations


The ongoing crisis at DCS ranks as one of the top stories of 2022

Nearly 500 caseworker positions remain vacant
Posted at 11:14 AM, Dec 28, 2022
and last updated 2022-12-28 14:55:45-05

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — The ongoing crisis at the agency that cares for Tennessee's most vulnerable children was one of the biggest stories of 2022.

Our NewsChannel 5 Investigates team exposed repeated failures inside the Department of Children's Services.

We look back at some of our exclusive reports that revealed a department near collapse.

Last December, caseworker Terry Nelson told us she took cell phone video of foster kids sleeping in a DCS office to alert people to what was happening.

"They're sleeping on the floor," Nelson said.

"They don't even have blankets. That's demeaning. We just told them they don't matter," Nelson said.

Nelson became a caseworker after being in foster care herself.

But she couldn't keep taking kids out of abusive homes with no appropriate foster home for them.

"It hurt me to the core because at the end of the day, if I had that experience when I came into DCS custody, I wouldn't have chosen to do social work," Nelson said.

After releasing the video, she was fired.

But our ongoing investigation reinforced what Nelson was trying to show.

In April, we found that dozens of kids simply ran away from the downtown DCS office building where they were staying.

We obtained police radio traffic detailing a search.

"Check with the bus station; just tell them to be on the lookout for him. He's going to be a runaway."

Police would arrest the runaways, which frustrated Davidson County Juvenile Court Judge Sheila Calloway.

"Now we are criminalizing their behaviors because we are not doing right by them, and so we are putting a label on them as a runaway," Calloway said.

She was upset DCS leadership repeatedly downplayed the growing crisis inside the department.

In late April, we reported a 12-year-old and 17-year-old had sex "while awaiting placement" at the DCS office on Athens Way.

The 17-year-old can be charged with rape, because, by law, 12 is too young to consent.

That's when some state senators began publicly saying they were losing confidence in DCS commissioner Jennifer Nichols.

"When I saw NewsChannel 5's report, I was floored," said State Senator Jeff Yarbro, (D), Nashville.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "Does the DCS commissioner have your full confidence?"

"I don't know how anyone could have full confidence in the department or the commissioner right now," Yarbro said.

By May, a blistering report claimed children were kept in solitary confinement at the DCS-run Wilder Youth Development Facility.

It also claimed guards encouraged youth to attack other youth.

"They'll give the children ten noodles, and they will beat up this person, and they get the noodles," one mom said.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "What do you mean, 'noodles'?"

"Ramen noodles, like the noodles you eat," the mom said.

In June, prominent attorneys revealed they might sue the state on behalf of all the foster kids in Tennessee.

The same attorneys were part of a similar lawsuit filed in 2000, called Brian A. — named after a foster child in state custody.

The Brian A. lawsuit led to a court takeover of DCS which ended in 2019.

"Because the kids are so powerless, they have no constituency. They have no voice, and we were their voice, and we are going to speak up again unless the state steps up and does this," said attorney David Raybin.

But talk of that lawsuit faded a month later when Governor Bill Lee fired DCS Commissioner Jennifer Nichols.

The new commissioner, Margie Quin, took over in September and has been more open about the dire situation the department faces.

In budget hearings last month, she said kids weren't just sleeping in office buildings — they were spending months at a time in hospitals, long after they should have left.

"They are staying 100 days in hospitals, and they are not acutely ill, but they can't stay in an office," Quin said.

Just this month, we reported DCS left a child with a mental health diagnosis at Vanderbilt Children's Hospital for 270 days.

DCS housed another at a hospital in Johnson City for 243 days — long after he should have been released.

As the year closed, the state released a scathing audit showing pictures where kids slept in office buildings and saying caseworker vacancies had reached crisis levels.

Commissioner Quin promised lawmakers she was making changes.

"We are working to move as quickly as we possibly can. We have a lot of folks to hire. That's only going to happen as quickly as that's going to happen," Quin said.

The new year will bring new pressure on Governor Bill Lee to turn the department around.

Thousands of children depend on it.

Get NewsChannel 5 Now, wherever, whenever, always free.

Watch the live stream below, and download our apps on Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV and more. Click here to learn more.