Families tell their DCS grievances to agency critic Rep. Jones

10:00 AM, Feb 19, 2013   |    comments
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By Tony Gonzalez, The Tennessean

More than a dozen families claiming mistreatment by the Tennessee Department of Children's Services gathered Monday in Nashville to share their stories with Rep. Sherry Jones, a longtime critic of the state's child protection agency.

Continuing coverage of the Department of Children's Services

The families - mostly mothers and grandmothers - spoke of child custody battles, perceived violations of law by DCS caseworkers, and difficulties navigating what they described as a confusing and sometimes combative state system.

Although the particulars varied, most stories included families pleading for more respect and clearer explanations from the DCS case managers whose decisions can change their lives.

"It was: 'Sign this piece of paper or I'm going to get your kids and you'll never see them again,' " said Julia Millsaps of Kingston, describing a meeting with a state investigator. "I'll sign just about anything, just tell me what it is. We were never told."

DCS leaders recently have responded to similar concerns about front-line caseworkers by considering new forms of training and requesting pay increases aimed at keeping experienced workers with the department.

How DCS does its work, investigating child abuse and overseeing foster children, has been the subject of scrutiny since Jones voiced concerns about the availability of DCS child fatality information in September.

Since then, child advocates, lawmakers, former employees and The Tennessean have detailed other systemic problems. Gov. Bill Haslam appointed a special adviser to probe the department. And Kate O'Day resigned from the commissioner's post Feb. 5, making way for Jim Henry, commissioner of the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, to temporarily run the agency until Haslam chooses a full-time replacement.

All of the attention has emboldened some families to share their experiences.

Monday, a state holiday, Jones listened to them most of the afternoon in a room at the nearly deserted Legislative Plaza. Millsaps and most others drove hours to be there - from as far as Johnson City - for a rare face-to-face with the lawmaker and with families who share similar concerns.

Jones took turns talking with each who came, at one point spending almost an hour on the room's maroon carpet to look over records pulled from one woman's black accordion folder. Almost everyone came with paperwork, whether in a 3-inch red binder or a slim purple folder.

"We're seeing (Jones) so each one of our cases can be heard," Millsaps said, "so she knows how to address the people within the higher departments of DCS."

What Jones can do with each grievance isn't always clear, although she has already filed a bill that would create a new commission to oversee the department.

Some attendees envision an ongoing support group. Last month, Jackson, Tenn.-based attorney Lanis Karnes hosted one such meeting, and another will take place next month in East Tennessee.

Karnes said that she has discussed a class-action lawsuit against the department but that other options will be considered first, such as continued lawmaker meetings or more family law training sessions for attorneys across the state.

"Some of the people today, their cases are over. There's not much recourse for them," Karnes said. "Awareness is the biggest thing. We can provide information."

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