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'I don't know how anyone could have full confidence in the department' says State Senator about DCS

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Posted at 6:12 PM, Apr 20, 2022

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — One state senator said he is losing confidence in the leadership at the Tennessee Department of Children's Services.

State Senator Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, said he believes the legislature needs to "provide some needed oversight" to the department.

His comments follow a NewsChannel 5 Investigates piece that revealed more than 40 children had run away from the DCS office building at 500 James Robertson Parkway since March of 2021.

Davidson County Juvenile Court Judge Sheila Calloway said the problem of children spending the night in state office buildings because DCS has no other place to put them is "at the worst it has been."

The NewsChannel 5 Investigates piece revealed that in February DCS 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 of a child because, by law, a 12-year-old is too young to consent.

DCS said it "launched an investigation into that incident in coordination with law enforcement."

The Department's statement said it had taken corrective actions including the "termination/resignation of two DCS employees."

"When I saw NewsChannel 5's report, I was floorboarded," Senator Yarbro said.

The state senator said the report revealed even bigger problems than he realized inside the Department of Children's Services.

"People should be able to rely on DCS to actually take care of kids when they are in crisis, and right now, I don't know that we can rely on the Department," Yarbro said.

Our investigation examined Metro Police Calls for Service at the main DCS office building downtown and found more than 40 children who ran away from the building. They were listed as missing persons in the reports.

Judge Calloway requires DCS to tell her every time a child is forced to spend the night at the DCS office because they have no place else to go.

She said it is happening more than ever before.

"We have to acknowledge we have a problem. We are in a crisis. We have to acknowledge that in order to solve the crisis," Judge Calloway said in our initial report.

This summer DCS caseworker Terri Nelson took a video of children sleeping on the office floor.

"There were no blankets. There were no pillows. There were not cots," Nelson said.

She provided the video to the Tennessee Lookout.

She later told NewsChannel 5 Investigates she was distraught the kids, who were removed from their homes because of abuse of neglect, had no place else to go.

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

Nelson was later fired by the Department.

Judge Calloway emphasized the kids are removed from their homes because they were abused or neglected - not because they did something wrong.

But if they run away, the police are called.

They are arrested and brought to juvenile court.

"They end up getting put into the system as offenders. They walk into juvenile court in handcuffs because the whole process started because they were victims," Senator Yarbro said.

Yarbro was frustrated at Department of Children's Services Commissioner Jennifer Nichols, who he said seemed to minimize concerns about kids staying in office buildings during March budget hearings.

Commissioner Nichols told lawmakers kids spent the night 58 times in January across the state.

"That's where I sort of did some math, and thought 31 days in January, across 95 counties. If you had even one child in each county, each day, that would have been 2945 children who spent a night," Commissioner Nichols said.

Part of the problem is workers leaving the department.

According to DCS, the Department has 2,765 budgeted caseworker positions.

Last month 609 were vacant.

"No one's ringing the alarm bell. No one's bringing in the resources we need to fix this problem," Senator Yarbro said.

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," Senator Yarbro responded.

Pressed further Senator Yarbro said he is not calling on the commissioner to resign.

The commissioner has repeatedly said child welfare agencies across the country are facing similar problems with staffing and lack of foster homes.

She said Tennessee has recently raised pay for DCS workers.

Here is the full DCS response from our original report about the Davidson County DCS office buildings:

We take all matters concerning the safety and well-being of children in Tennessee seriously. While our caseworkers are reviewing the case and seeking placement appropriate to the child’s needs, the child will wait in a DCS office with their caseworker. Children are then provided a temporary or permanent placement in a home setting or group care when indicated. When a placement is not readily available, the first option exercised is a transitional home until a placement can be found. During the month of January, staff were unable to find an immediate placement for one child. During the first nine days of February, staff were unable to find an immediate placement for six children and an additional seven refused placement. From February 10 to March 31, 2021, staff were able to find placement for all children.

We recognize the challenges we face are similar to those currently faced by child welfare agencies across the nation. We have reached out to our counterparts in other states to see how they are addressing similar issues. We have spoken to state legislators about our placement concerns and how they are impacting children. In addition, the recent budget proposal put forward by Governor Lee recognizes these challenges and seeks to address many of them.

I want to thank our caseworkers for the sacrifices they make on a daily basis. Their willingness to stay with children overnight, taking time away from their own children and families, shows their dedication to Tennessee youth.