Commissioner Kate O’Day ran Tennessee’s Department of Children’s Services for two years. She quit last week a day before she was set to testify in front of lawmakers about child deaths.
The Department of Children’s Services (DCS) is responsible for more than 8,000 minors in state custody and the operation of Tennessee’s foster care system. The agency has been sued for keeping too many children in group homes. Matthew Madlock, an 18-year-old from Nashville, experienced that problem first hand when he was placed in a group home before aging out of the foster care system.
“I was there for two and a half years—longer than any other kid had been at that group home—not really due to my behavior but because DCS failed to update my permanency plan,” Madlock said.
Even so, the most serious complaints against the department involved child deaths. In addition to running the foster care system, the agency investigates child abuse and neglect. DCS is supposed to provide reports to lawmakers of all the child deaths and near deaths in their districts, but many state legislators complained they were getting these reports from law enforcement officials instead. Jim Summerville represents Hickman County where, he says, a young boy was recently choked by his mother.
“She claimed that the child had fallen off his bicycle,” Summerville said. “That very day he was sent back home with his mother, who had also tested [positive] that same day for two types of illegal drugs. One story is an anecdote, lots of stories are evidence.”
One of the main reasons state legislators like Summerville haven’t received these reports is a computer system plagued with glitches. In 2010 the state spent $27 million to put in a new computer tracking system for children. “Ever since, the agency has been unable to produce even some really basic reports about the kids that they are watching,” said Blake Farmer who covers the state Capitol for WPLN in Nashville.
Several news organizations in Tennessee sued the Department of Children’s Services in order to get some of these records. The agency admitted in court that it could not accurately count the number of children who had died in its custody and that the tracking system had missed nine deaths in the last two years; and just last week Commissioner O’Day’s office told newspapers they’d have to pay $55,000 to get copies of the case files in question.
Lawsuits and a drumbeat of criticism assured O’Day’s resignation said Representative John DeBerry of Memphis, “I can’t for one second believe that this was not eating her alive—as a woman, as a mother. It was inevitable that at some point she’d throw up her hands and give up.”
Even so, other lawmakers described O’Day’s position as “an impossible job.”
“It is an agency that really has to act like a parent,” said Farmer. “It’s a tough job.”
Governor Bill Haslam defended O’Day until the end and pointed out that the agency’s problems predated her tenure, “DCS has been in existence for like 16 years and they've had like 16 bad years in a row.”
Despite its troubled history, Farmer said DCS was improving in many ways. “They became one of seven such agencies in the country to get this very lofty accreditation,” Farmer explained, “but it really feels the wheels have come off and a lot of folks point back to these IT problems.”
Haslam has named the Commissioner of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Jim Henry as the interim head of the agency. The governor will now have to select a new permanent leader, and has also called for other changes to the department. In his State of the State address in January the governor mentioned the Department of Children’s Services specifically, indicating his desire to pay the department's case managers more and change the qualifications for those positions.