NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Tammy Jackson desperately wanted to help her five grandchildren. She remembers the call from a Department of Children's Services caseworker last July, after the children's mom had been arrested for child abuse.
"This was the call. 'If you don't take them, they are going into state custody tonight." Jackson said.
Jackson drove to Nashville and picked up the five grandkids who were between the ages of 4 and 10. "All I know is how they came to me. I had to teach them their names. I had to teach them their dates of birth, teach them their ages, how to hold a toothbrush," Jackson said.
But unlike foster parents who receive money to help raise the children they care for, relatives who take on neglected family members currently get no cash payments from the state. Jackson suddenly had five children desperately in need of services and no help from DCS. She said she repeatedly called DCS after picking up the kids but could not get a caseworker on the phone.
It was not the first time she felt the department had failed her and her grandkids.
Jackson had grown apart from her daughter, Jacqueline Mangrum, who is the mother of the children. She said her daughter suffered from mental health and addiction problems, but that did not stop her from having ten kids.
We first reported how the Department of Children's Services investigated Mangrum 35 different times since the birth of her first child, but never took the kids away. Jackson said she once called DCS on her own daughter.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "If 35 times someone called, and DCS came and checked on them, how did they not see these problems? How did this happen?"
Jackson responded, "That's a good question, and I cannot answer that." Court records show Mangrum was arrested last July after Metro Police received a call about "a child being beaten at a gas station."
"It was a disaster that we walked into," officers said in court. "The children were filthy. They stunk. They had rotting teeth. They had stunted speech... DCS came, and they did an immediate protective agreement with the grandmother that lived out of county."
"I had no paperwork, nothing," Jackson said. "These children were placed with me on an emergency placement. I was told the caseworker will be with you on Monday."
But the caseworker never called. So Jackson started making regular calls to DCS begging for help with the kids. "No money, no groceries, no nothing," Jackson said.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "No counseling? There's no help?"
Jackson responded, "No counseling. No help."
Foster parents in Tennessee currently receive $27.53 a day, that's more than $800 dollars a month, to help with costs for children under 12 years old. They receive slightly more for children older than 12. But in a statement, DCS said, "Currently, the law provides no cash payments to relatives, but eligible relatives may receive goods and services from local community partners."
Jackson got nothing. "I don't know how we made it. Had it not been for the kindness and generosity of my coworkers, who I call my family, because they are my family," Jackson said.
Attorney Dawn Coppock represents foster families in Tennessee. "If (DCS) can dump a kid off with a relative without making them official foster parents that saves the state a lot of money," Coppock said.
She said DCS policy requires caseworkers to tell relatives how they can apply for grants or even become a foster parent, but Jackson said DCS never returned her calls.
Attorney Richard Dawahare has sued Kentucky and Ohio saying states should automatically provide foster care payments to relatives who take on children. "They haven't been making these payments like they should, and children are suffering. Relatives are suffering. Society is suffering," Dawahare said.
He said states don't pay because it's too expensive.
"They want to balance their budgets on the backs of these relatives," Dawahare said.
Jackson was suddenly caring for multiple kids on her one salary. Things fell apart when Jackson came down with COVID last October. She could no longer work. She could not get DCS on the phone, so she called the Rutherford County Sheriff's Department.
"That was my cry for help. I needed help here," Jackson said. The October incident report reveals she told deputies she was not "able to care for (the kids) anymore due to sickness causing her to not be able to work."
She told them "there was an open DCS case, but she had not heard from them." Jackson said she maxed out her credit cards to cover costs. Eventually, the kids' mother bonded out of jail and took the kids. Mangrum was later arrested again, and the kids went into state custody.
Jackson said she is speaking out for other neglected kids and for the relatives in Tennessee who care for them. "When a system that is designed to protect a child, victimizes a child, they let them down. These children don't know who they can trust," Jackson said.
DCS touted a law that goes into effect next year which would provide relatives with half the monthly payments that foster parents receive. But those payments are contingent upon the state funding that program. Attorney Dawn Coppock said that would be a huge amount of money and questions whether lawmakers will fully fund it.
Despite all that Jackson has been through, she still wants to keep the five kids together. She is asking the state to put the five kids with her now that the mom is serving time in jail.
Here is the full response from a DCS spokesperson when we asked about this case and when we asked about paying relative caregivers:
Several options are or will shortly be available to relatives as far as I am aware:
A new law, effective January 1, 2023, providing cash payment at 50% of the foster parent board rate to eligible relatives who are awarded custody of children and youth. Note that to be eligible, these children and youth cannot be in state custody.
Currently, the law provides no cash payments to relatives, but eligible relatives may receive goods and services from local community partners.
A relative who elects to foster may, pending final full approval as a foster parent, qualify as an expedited kinship placement and receive payment of half of the rate available to a fully approved foster parent. This option is not available to non-relatives.
Finally, a relative who is fully approved as a foster parent will be paid at the same rate as any other fully-approved foster parent.