When Jim Henry took over the embattled Tennessee Department of Children's Services a few months ago, he knew he had to reinvent the department's safety culture.
The department, for years, has been engulfed in controversies over inadequate protections for children, children's deaths and questions about how investigations were handled.
Henry, a former state lawmaker who had long advocated for children with special needs, already was commissioner of the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.
In fact it was that background that seems to make him the right person for the job. One of the first things he did to get a handle on fixing the myriad of DCS problems was to shadow a Children's Services caseworker.
"It changed me," he said. "We went into the projects ... into a room that was absolutely filthy. There were four little kids and a single mom with mental health problems who was not taking her medication."
He recounted a scene in which he and the investigator and a third person picked their way over nasty floors with pizza everywhere to check a frightened 4-year-old look for a bruise that ultimately wasn't there. The apartment totaled 600 or 700 square feet, he said, and held 11 people that day, including another couple and their baby.
"On the bed is another child, who was asleep through all this, and I'm wondering if he was awake all night. ... (Later) I'm holding the 5-week old while I listen to the interview. ...He and I make eye contact, and I'm thinking 'What kind of chance does this kid have.'"
He said the experience was so touching, so eye-opening, that he set a new policy in the department. Every employee in DCS must do the same thing -- even computer maintenance workers.
"Everybody in our department needs to know what the front line goes through every day so they can know what they need in order to support them in some way. I think it will change us for the good. This is terribly important work, and most people don't get in it for the money," Henry said. A social worker makes $35,000 to $45,000 a year, he said.
A second thing he and new Deputy Commissioner Scott Modell did was to begin a partnership with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to create a DCS investigator academy to better train case workers in investigating, documenting and completing files to give district attorneys prosecutable cases.
"We want to have investigators who fully understand social work and family, not social workers who do investigations," Modell said.
A third initiative was to partner with Hiwassee College in Madisonville, Tenn., to pilot a program aimed at providing college and jobs training to children who are aging out of the foster care system, Henry said.
And a fourth thing, perhaps the most important, was to create a child death review process to determine what mistakes are made within DCS that may have led to a death. The aim is not to punish, but to learn from those mistakes. The reviews will be made public, Henry promises. The death review and training, in part, are responses to a lawsuit and court order, but they go beyond the prescribed fix, Henry said.
For a department charged with investigating allegations of abuse and neglect, operating the state's foster care system and rehabilitating the state's juvenile offenders, this is huge. And tragically is long overdue.
Henry has pledged accountability. We'll be watching.
We also salute the effort.