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'Worse than it's ever been' says juvenile court judge about kids staying in DCS office buildings

Posted at 11:59 AM, Apr 06, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-06 19:24:02-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — The Department of Children's Services has launched an investigation into whether a 12-year-old was sexually assaulted by another minor inside a DCS office building.

DCS said two employees have already been fired or have resigned in connection with the investigation.

The incident happened at the DCS office on Athens Way in Davidson County while the minors were "awaiting placement" according to reports uncovered by NewsChannel 5 Investigates.

Our investigation discovered children are spending more time in DCS office buildings as the Department struggles to find permanent placements — like foster homes for them.

Davidson County Juvenile Court Judge Sheila Calloway has a standing order requiring DCS to notify her anytime a child spends the night in an office building.

She told NewsChannel 5 Investigates it is happening more than ever before.

"We are probably at the worst it has been," Judge Calloway said. "We have to acknowledge we have a problem. We are in a crisis."

The judge spoke to us before we discovered the report of the sexual assault.

We showed her police reports from the DCS Office at 500 James Robertson Parkway that reveal juveniles often run away from the office building.

Police radio traffic from February detailed the search for one juvenile.

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

"He's wearing a hoodie," said a police dispatcher who went on the describe the teen who ran.

We discovered more than 40 similar reports from the DCS office at James Robertson Parkway in the last year.

All were listed as "missing persons."

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Judge Calloway, "How surprised are you to see all of these missing person reports?"

Judge Calloway responded, "It's unfortunate, but I'm not surprised. I'm not surprised."

A DCS caseworker took cell phone video last summer of kids sleeping on the floor at the office building.

The caseworker told NewsChannel 5 Investigates she released the video, which was first reported by the Tennessee Lookout, because she was disgusted the kids had no other place to go.

DCS later fired the caseworker.

Judge Calloway emphasized the children staying at DCS offices are often removed from their homes because they were abused or neglected.

They did not do anything wrong.

"They're not having an appropriate place to lay down, to put their clothes, to take a shower, to get ready for school the next day, it's inappropriate," Judge Calloway said. "When they are sitting in the office and that's where they are told to sleep, to me it's worse than probably where they think they came from."

One example involves a 13-year-old girl with mental health issues who was removed from her unsafe home because of a drug-addicted parent.

The girl was repeatedly taken to the DCS office building while the department looked for a permanent placement for her.

Since being removed from her home, she has been arrested from the DCS office four different times — for things like disorderly conduct.

"Then you call police on her and then she's brought here to the detention facility in handcuffs," Judge Calloway said.

She said when neglected kids get arrested for things like running from the office, DCS often pressures her to keep them in detention, because DCS has no other place to put them.

"We don't have any other place for her to go. Can you keep her overnight? We get those calls daily," Judge Calloway said. "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."

But keeping kids in office buildings for many hours at a time has led to other serious problems.

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 in a statement it has "launched an investigation into that incident in coordination with law enforcement."

The department said corrective actions are underway "including the termination/resignation of two DCS employees."

In March, DCS Commissioner Jennifer Nichols was asked about kids in office buildings during Senate budget hearings.

"When is the last time a child in DCS custody has spent the night in a state office building?" State Senator Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, asked.

Commissioner Nichols responded, "People say, 'in the office.' A lot of times it's an Isaiah House or some other safe space, but the way we track shows they haven't found their placement yet."

Judge Calloway was disappointed with the Commissioner's response.

"I believe they are downplaying how serious this is, and I believe we have got to do more," Judge Calloway said. "I need to see a representative from the Department of Children's Services on the news every day saying 'we need foster parents. We need this community to step up.'"

DCS currently has fewer foster homes than it did three years ago, and large numbers of caseworkers have left.

The department has 2,765 budgeted caseworker positions, and as of early March, it had 609 vacancies.

The department has said it is experiencing unprecedented turnover among caseworkers like many child welfare departments across the country.

Judge Calloway said she's heard from caseworkers frustrated they are told to spend the night with children at an office building.

Here is the full statement from the Department of Children's Services:

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 (in Davidson County). 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 (in Davidson County).

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.