Nonprofit report urges Tennessee Department of Children's Services to pivot from institutionalizing kids

Staff File Photo / The State of Tennessee's Department of Children's Services office in housed at the East Gate complex.

A new report by a pair of nonprofit organizations urges the Department of Children's Services to pivot away from institutionalizing troubled youth to instead providing needed services to families.

The report, released Wednesday by Disability Rights Tennessee and the Youth Law Center, examines the state's youth justice system overseen by the troubled department, which is also responsible for Tennessee's system of foster care.

For months, a cascade of crises afflicting both systems has emerged. Among them: abuse of delinquent youth in the Wilder Youth Development Center, kids destined for foster care sleeping on office floors and in hospital beds and high turnover among the staff charged with caring for them.

(READ MORE: Tennessee legislative panel cracks whip over state Department of Children's Services problems)

Thus far, some of the key solutions to the crises proposed by DCS Chief Margie Quin, and some lawmakers, have focused on increasing access to institutional care -- including boosting pay for guards and staff at the Wilder, increased pay for institutions that provide inpatient care and counseling and funding new "transitional" housing, where children have a temporary place to stay when there are no foster homes or other care available.

The report, "Families Not Facilities," suggests that emphasis is misguided.

"For too long, the Department of Children's Services has been focused on building more beds in order to address placement issues for youth in the foster care and juvenile justice system," the report said.

"But what matters most in any child's life is not what bed they sleep in, but who is tucking them in at night," the report said. "Unless we believe that youth in DCS custody are destined to remain in facilities all their lives, we must ensure they are connected to families who can support them in ways big and small as they transition into adulthood."

(READ MORE: Audit finds Tennessee children in state custody in jeopardy)

The report includes six recommendations.

-- Investing in proven family-centered interventions rather than "ineffective, expensive and dangerous facilities." "Families want to take care of their children, but often struggle to access the educational, mental health and other services that can meet their needs," the report noted.

-- Multi-disciplinary teams to assess a child and families' needs, bringing those services to them. Groups of professionals would assess the child's entire history, including a history of trauma, and create long term plans for how a youth involved in the juvenile justice system may return to their families.

-- Expanding community mental health services. "Youth should not have to live in facilities to access mental health treatment that can be provided in a community-based setting," the report noted. At the same time, the report called into question the mental health treatment kids are receiving in DCS institutions: youth have been "prescribed medications in ways that put them at risk," the report said.

(READ MORE: Tennessee Children's Services chief says agency is experiencing 'horrific' turnover rate)

-- Addressing racial and geographic disparities in available services to children and families. Black youth are disproportionately represented not only in the youth justice system overall, but in its most restrictive settings, the report noted. And a significant gap in services exists between rural and urban areas in Tennessee.

-- Focusing on "upstream services" to address the fact that kids who come to the attention of DCS because they have been abused or neglected are likely to show up again in the juvenile justice system. More than 86% of all Tennessee kids who wind up in trouble in the state's juvenile justice system had previously come to the attention of DCS because of abuse or neglect allegations when they were younger. National estimates put that "crossover" rate at about 50%. "Tennessee should be examining how to mitigate against the high occurrence of crossover youth by stabilizing youth and their families through compassionate upstream services and treatment, rather than focusing on punishing downstream," the report said.

-- Ending "administrative transfers" of kids in the DCS juvenile justice system to the adult criminal system. Quin has testified that DCS is transferring youth from detention centers to the adult corrections system "with more frequency and on a shorter timeline than they would like because they have no viable placement option," the report noted. The report urges DCS to immediately cease such transfers.

"Tennessee's current system is not responding to youth as if they are youth," the report said. "It is treating youth like prison inmates."