Amid a housing crisis for children in state custody, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee isn't considering a special session of the state legislature but is looking at options for solving the problem immediately.
Meanwhile, a group of Democrats is urging the governor to take action now to keep children from sleeping in offices and, in some cases, spending months in hospitals.
Lee told reporters after budget hearings the state needs to raise the pay level of caseworkers and hire more personnel to reduce the workload within the Department of Children's Services.
"We're also looking at short-term solutions with privatization of those providing services. We need to do better by those kids, and we're going to," Lee said.
Children's Services Commissioner Margie Quin sought $156 million in new funding from the governor in budget hearings last week and described a scenario in which children in state custody are sleeping in offices and being sent to hospitals for months at a time, because the state has no place else to place them.
Quin also said some children are being sent out of state, and that facilities that could care for Tennessee children are taking out-of-state children because those states pay more.
Quin laid out her plan to the governor just two months after taking office. But the Tennessee Lookout reported 14 months ago, after obtaining video, that seven children in the custody of Children's Services were forced to spend the night in office space at the Davy Crockett Tower in downtown Nashville because the state had nowhere else to send them.
The state usually takes custody of children after Children's Services investigates accusations of abuse or neglect. But it is clear, based on previous reports and Quin's presentation, that the department is overwhelmed.
Fox News reported that a toddler recently died at a Nashville homeless encampment even though an uncle and grandfather notified the state about her situation and drug abuse by the parents.
State Sen. Heidi Campbell, a Nashville Democrat, said Monday that conditions for children in the state agency's custody have been "horrific" for years but the Republican-controlled legislature has put its emphasis elsewhere.
Campbell and state Rep. Gloria Johnson, a Knoxville Democrat, sent a letter to Lee on Monday seeking immediate action. The letter said that funding in the next fiscal year, which starts July 1, 2023, is needed, but that steps should be taken over the next seven months to put children in safe conditions.
Their letter makes note of the death of Ariel Rose at Brookemeade Park as one of "many tragic outcomes" caused by the state's inability to care for children.
"For our state to ignore the needs of children in our custody the same year that we have enacted a policy that requires women to give birth, with no exceptions, is simply cruel," the letter said, referring to Tennessee's new ban on abortions. "We currently have billions in reserve, and our negligence is indefensible. We respectfully request that you provide interventional remediation immediately for the sake of our children."
Queried by reporters last week, Lee said he believes the state has some options to expedite the process and find places for children to stay, possibly using funds within the current state budget.
Quin's request would add $156 million in the next fiscal budget for 2023-24, $75 million of which would come from the state, to the department's $1.1 billion budget.
"Most importantly, I need to have a thorough understanding of their budget request and their belief and understanding that we can immediately impact the issues with the requests that they've made," Lee said.
The governor contends the problem stems largely from an "enormous workforce issue" and an inability to hire and maintain caseworkers within the department. Most of the funding is likely to target hiring social workers, he said.
Quin called the turnover rate among social workers "pretty horrific" because of high caseloads and stressful working conditions. The state has 486 vacancies, and nearly half of starting caseworkers left within their first year on the job.
In addition to detailing cases in which disruptive children are being sent to hospitals for up to 100 days, Quin described several other problems.
For instance, private facilities for children with mental or physician health needs are taking out-of-state children instead because Tennessee pays less. She noted 75 children in Tennessee's custody are staying out of state.
The commission is requesting $6.9 million for temporary homes where children can be assessed for mental health needs and to keep them out of offices and hospitals.
She also is seeking pay increases for officers at Wilder Youth Development Center, where teens who commit crimes are housed in West Tennessee. Starting salaries are only $27,000, and she is requesting $1 million to bring them in line with first-year salaries of $45,000 within the Department of Correction.
Read more at TennesseeLookout.com.