published Tuesday, January 28th, 2014

Audit of Tennessee child welfare agency finds problems

NASHVILLE — An audit of the Tennessee Department of Children's Services finds that the state child-welfare agency has had numerous problems, including sloppy child-abuse investigations.

The audit, performed by the state comptroller's office and released Monday, also found that DCS was not adequately tracking juvenile delinquents on probation and failed to report the deaths of children in its custody, as required by law.

The review looked at the agency from May 2007 to October 2013 — a time that included three different commissioners.

The agency has come under for fire for numerous problems, including the deaths or near deaths of more than 200 children since 2009 that had been reported to the agency as being possible abuse or neglect cases. Former Commissioner Kate O'Day resigned last year when the agency came under intense fire for the child deaths.

Commissioner Jim Henry was appointed last year to replace O'Day. He has since restructured the organization and vowed to make reforms.

Henry described the audit as a "good learning tool" that would help the agency improve.

"I think all the problems they pointed out we agreed with," he said of the report. He vowed to use the audit as a way to build a better department and stressed that many reforms were already underway.

For instance, he said, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation is now training agency caseworkers so that they may do a better job investigating and documenting child abuse and neglect.

The comptroller's audit found that agency investigators and supervisors were not thorough and failed to document and follow-up on some kids. The report also faulted the department for not following a state law that requires the agency to report the death of a kid in its care to that child's state legislature.

Henry said that since he became commissioner, the agency is being transparent and is going so far to post information on child deaths on its website.

In addition to investigating child abuse and neglect, agency houses and rehabilitates juvenile delinquents and runs the state's foster care program.

The audit raised questions about whether the agency was performing necessary background checks on foster parents, workers and others responsible for caring for children.

The audit also found several problems with juvenile delinquents, including: a failure to monitor kids on probation, a failure to track how often they re-offend and the inability of the agency to know which treatment or rehabilitation programs actually work. The department said it is in the process of fixing those problems and is working with Vanderbilt University to develop evidence-based programs.

The audit's findings were discussed Monday during a joint subcommittee of government operations meeting at the state legislature. Lawmakers, conducting a routine debate on whether the agency should continue to exist, decided to give the department three more years so Henry can implement all his reforms. Still, lawmakers want the auditors to give them an update in six months.

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