DCS chief tells lawmakers: 'I need your help'

8:01 AM, Mar 13, 2013   |    comments
Interim DCS commissioner Jim Henry fielded questions from lawmakers/The Tennessean
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Written by Anita Wadhwani and Tony Gonzalez, The Tennessean

The acting chief of the Department of Children's Services told state lawmakers Tuesday about improvements made at the troubled agency within the past 30 days, including a new policy requiring staff to call his cellphone within one hour of a child's death in state custody.

Jim Henry, interim commissioner, fielded questions from lawmakers for about three hours at a special hearing to examine mounting problems at the $650 million child welfare agency. The department's inconsistent reporting of child deaths and other issues led to the resignation of the former commissioner, Kate O'Day, last month.

He asked lawmakers for their help.

"This is a department where there are no answers," Henry said. "You pull a child out of a home early and people complain. You don't pull a child out of a home, people complain."

"I need your help. The legislature is a very important element in this, with resources. I need the governor's help. And I need the media's help," Henry said.

With an entourage of more than a dozen senior-level DCS staffers, Henry appeared before the House Government Operations Committee.

Several lawmakers said they needed to know more about how the department carries out its child welfare work.

"We didn't have enough time to get into the weeds," said Rep. G.A. Hardaway, a Memphis Democrat. "Henry is a good man who has walked into a hornet's nest. Some of the questions we posed today were kind to him. But he's probably going to get stung before this is over."

Lawmakers had posed in advance a lengthy list of questions - some broad and others laser-focused on specific policies - and spent the hearing asking how caseworkers are trained, how the agency answers calls on its child abuse hotline and what exactly investigators do when they arrive at a home where a child has been abused or neglected.

Changes outlined

For his part, Henry reported numerous steps he has taken to try to right the agency, including reversing several of O'Day's decisions.

He has hired back former staff members she had fired - including former agency director Debbie Miller and former spokesman Rob Johnson. He also decided to pursue accreditation with the Council on Accreditation, which requires the agency to maintain adherence to the council's tough standards for child welfare agencies, reversing an O'Day decision.

Henry has tapped experts in the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities - where Henry still serves as commissioner - to assist DCS in creating new internal child death review protocols, which are used to learn why children known to DCS died and to prevent future incidents.

Henry has personally notified legislators of child deaths in their districts, has met with national experts, has reviewed the department's computer system and has met multiple times with child advocates and leaders of private companies who care for about half of the state's foster children.

He has created a "kitchen cabinet" of advisers that includes former Nashville Mayor Bill Purcell (Miller's husband); Briant Millsaps, president and treasurer of the Tennessee Baptist Children's Home; and Brad Martin, former chairman and CEO of Saks Inc., the retail company where Gov. Bill Haslam once served as a president and CEO of its Internet operations.

When asked how he would assess the meeting with Henry, Oak Ridge Republican Rep. John Ragan said, "How did it go? That's a loaded question. 'Well' is not a good description. It was good information."

More than money

Lawmakers - and Henry - offered different conclusions that appeared to veer along partisan lines about the role funding plays in solving problems.

Before her departure, O'Day proposed increasing the agency budget by $15.8 million in state and federal funding, to hire more caseworkers and lawyers - a measure that has Haslam's support.

The agency has seen its budget cut by $30 million and has lost more than 200 staff members in the past two years under O'Day.

During Tuesday's hearing, Rep. Mike Turner, a Nashville Democrat, told Henry he believed some DCS problems stem from cuts to staff and funding.

"I think the governor has tried to correct a lot lost in his budget ... but I think he needs to correct it more," Turner said.

Sherry Jones, D-Nashville, was more direct: "We have plenty of money, and we just need to put it into the department."

Ragan, however, said, "The issue of the budget is not a core problem. The first priority is organizing the agency. Then you can talk later about the budget."

And Henry, a longtime Republican lawmaker before joining the private sector and then state government, said the problems are deeper than money alone can fix: "This is an economic recession. I doubt you can tax your way out of this problem, and I doubt if you can cut your way out of this problem."

Today and Thursday, lawmakers will review the agency's budget request in separate hearings.

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