published Thursday, September 4th, 2014

Lawmakers urge re-opening of Taft facility in wake of teen felon escapes in Nashville

Taft Youth Development Center, shown here in December 2011, was closed permanently last summer and now is a property of the state Department of Correction.
Taft Youth Development Center, shown here in December 2011, was closed permanently last summer and now is a property of the state Department of Correction.
Photo by Jake Daniels.

NASHVILLE — Three state lawmakers are urging the Haslam administration to consider re-opening Taft Youth Development Center near Pikeville in the wake of two nights of mass escapes and a riot by teenaged felons at a less secure facility located in the middle of Nashville.

Meanwhile, the Tennessee State Employees Association is laying the problem at the feet of Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, citing cuts he's made in the Department of Children's Services.

Haslam in 2012 followed recommendations by his then-DCS Commissioner Kate O'Day that he shut down Taft, which supporters said had successfully housed the "worst of the worst" teen criminals in rural Bledsoe County for decades. O'Day called it a necessary cost-saving measure and insisted other youth centers were up to handling them.

In a letter sent Wednesday to O'Day's replacement, DCS Commissioner Jim Henry, state Rep. Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, said he and other lawmakers have "given the other Youth Centers two years to adjust and handle these youths after the closing of Taft. However, due to escalating issues … we believe we cannot sit back any longer and watch as the violence continues to escalate."

The letter was also signed by Rep. Ron Travis, R-Dayton, and Rep. Paul Bailey, R-Sparta.

Meanwhile, state employees are putting on pressure as well. Saying that the Tennessee State Employees Association has been "greatly troubled" by the unstable situation at the Woodland Hills facility in Nashville, two teen suicides in an East Tennessee facility and other problems, TSEA President Bryan Merrit complained in inadquate staffing.

“I think we can all agree that staff, client and public safety has to be a priority to everyone."

The group says DCS' budget has been slashed nearly 40 percent since Haslam took office.

“Gov. Haslam says he is running Tennessee like a business,” TSEA Executive Director John Summers said in a news release. “But, is it good business practice to reduce a department’s budget and staff to the point where services are negatively impacted and, in some instances, lives are jeopardized?"

He likened state services and employees to a "rubber band" stretching to their "breaking point."

Asked about the concerns, Haslam spokesman David Smith said "Commissioner Henry is putting together a report on Woodland Hills for the governor to review. The governor will have more to say once he’s reviewed that report."

about Andy Sher...

Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...

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