DCS commissioner Henry says reforms will improve system
By Joel Davis | (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Blount County has the fifth highest number of children in Tennessee Department of Children’s Services custody in the state, and authorities don’t know exactly why.
Blount County had 205 children taken into custody during the fiscal year ending on June 30, according to information provided by the staff of DCS Commissioner Jim Henry during a visit here Thursday.
The reasons ranged from parent substance abuse, to child behavioral problems, to neglect to physical and sexual abuse.
The top five counties:
• Shelby County, with 761;
• Knox County, 441;
• Davidson County, 280;
• Montgomery County, 208;
• and Blount County, 205.
When it comes down to exact reasons why, though, a firm answer is lacking.
“I don’t know what the problem is,” Henry said. “I asked the people at DCS, and I wasn’t satisfied with the answer I got. I don’t know if we have a clear answer for it otherwise than it’s a problem. I don’t know whether we are doing a better job of recognizing problems here.”
The state custody numbers could mean something positive.
“Sometimes it’s not a bad thing if you’ve got a lot of people in custody,” Henry said. “It costs you a lot of money, but you turn a lot of kids around.”
The numbers could also be related to the scope of the drug addiction problem in East Tennessee, one of the largest in the state, Henry said. “Almost everything we touch now is drug-related.”
Henry paid a visit to The Daily Times offices on Thursday to talk about organizational reforms he has initiated since taking the helm of the department in February. He also talked about his top three priorities in guiding the department.
“No. 1, to make kids safe,” Henry said. “That has to be our No. 1 issue, getting kids into a safe environment. Most of our problems come not with kids in state custody, but kids that never come into our care.”
In April, Henry overhauled the organizational structure of DCS, elevating Child Protective Services (CPS) SEmD the program that investigates reports of child abuse and neglect — to its own division named Child Safety. A new deputy commissioner position has been created to oversee the program previously charged with foster care and adoption. DCS has also overhauled the recruitment, training and assessment process for CPS investigators.
“In order to get kids safe, it was very easy to see that investigations were a very important part of that,” Henry said.
In order to ramp up investigative capability, Henry ordered significantly more training for case workers. “It was really sad that there wasn’t very much training for the people who really had the most difficult job in state government with the lowest pay.”
Scott J. Modell, DCS deputy commissioner, said that the department has partnered with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to create a training academy for CPS investigators. “We need investigators who fully understand social work and family issues, not social workers who are investigators,” he said.
CPS investigators now report directly to the Central Office to provide more consistency, Henry said. “We centralized the investigations. It’s really not a good idea to have regional investigators. If something is really wrong, are people going to report on themselves?”
Into the field
Henry is requiring that every DCS employee goes into the field with a case worker in order to get a better idea of the job. “The auditors, the receptionists, the people in accounting who pay bills, they are all going to the field and have the experience of going up to a door and knocking on it and saying, ‘We’re from CPS, and we want to look at your child.’”
This is something that Henry required himself to do as well. “It was an enlightening experience,” he said. “... It’s important that they understand the plight of how difficult this job is. Knocking on a door in inner-city Memphis at 2 a.m. in the projects is tough work.”
Supporting DCS employees is a priority for Henry. “We’ve got to do better at training our people,” he said. “We’ve got to do better at making it a better job. Pay is important but respect and knowing that people appreciate what you do is also important.
“People don’t just stay on jobs for the pay,” he said. “We want to make sure we offer them the training they need, the support they need, and we want to be able to tell our side of the story.”
Under Henry, the division of Child Programs, previously titled Child Welfare, will continue to house foster care and adoption, independent living and network development, and will add in-home services.
Henry stressed the importance of getting children in the foster system “back on track where they can find permanency, whether that is in a home environment or whether we have to send them back to a home or get them adopted. In trying to find kids a permanent place to land, we’re one of the top states in the country. We don’t get much credit for that.”
A new division of Child Health was created to oversee the child death review process, safety analysis, nursing, psychology and education.
“If we can’t take what we learned and inform our practice, we are missing the opportunity to avoid deaths and near-deaths,” said Tom Cheetham, deputy commissioner for Child Health.
Henry also promised more openness to the media and the public about DCS activities. “We aren’t going to be hiding things,” he said. “We feel somewhat hampered at times because if we can’t say anything, then some parent that has a lot to hide tells their side of the story, and we don’t get to tell ours. We would love to be able to tell our story without exposing kids to the privacy law.”
In May, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam named Henry as permanent commissioner at the DCS after he served on an interim basis.
Previously, Henry was the first commissioner of the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, which was formerly a division of the Department of Finance and Administration before becoming a state department in 2011.