NASHVILLE -- Tennessee Democratic lawmakers are skewering Republican Gov. Bill Lee for pushing legislation to abolish the state's 35-year-old independent Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth.
Senate Bill 282 and its House companion, House Bill 330, would move the commission's funding, operations and mission under the governor's direct control in the Department of Children's Services and other agencies.
Lee's move came after the unique, independent and quasi-governmental commission -- which serves as a policy advocate, think tank and watchdog -- said in its annual State of the Child Report that Tennessee had the nation's highest rate of foster care instability in the nation.
The report found that in 2020, Tennessee's rate of instability was 33.7%. That exceeded No. 2, Puerto Rico, which had an instability rate of 25.9%. The national rate is 14.9%, according to the United Health Foundation. Instability is defined as the percentage of children in foster care with three or more placements within a 12-month period.
State Sen. London Lamar, a Memphis Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate Democratic Caucus, called the Lee administration bill to eliminate the Commission on Children and Youth an abomination last week.
"This commission was created to help us improve the statuses of children and youth, let us know where we are and how we can make it better," she told state Capitol reporters.
"This last year's report, obviously, told the truth about where we are when it comes to how we're dealing with children and youth," Lamar said. "And because it talked about how terrible our foster care system is -- the worst in the country -- instead of proposing legislation that would improve the conditions of our foster care system and taking it as a learning lesson, we just go get rid of the whole organization in total and put it under the department that's been most criticized in this report."
She also noted that the commission's latest report was not entirely critical, having found the department doing some good things.
Lee's move comes after a several-year period during which Lee's Department of Children's Services has been in turmoil due to understaffing and high turnover among staffers due to low pay and other issues.
Among other things, that has led to children sleeping on agency floors, some of them overseen by agency higher-ups, and other problems. Children with disabilities were being housed in hospitals for months at a time. The administration has been bombarded in news coverage. Under recommendations from his new Children's Services commissioner, Lee has moved to increase pay for case managers, which has helped alleviate staff shortages.
Tennessee has been in a bad spot on foster care problems before. For a 16-year stretch, the entire system was under a federal judge's oversight because of ongoing deficiencies. Some 16 months before Lee took office in 2019, then-Gov. Bill Haslam proudly announced the state was emerging from federal oversight.
"I don't think you'll see Tennessee go back," Haslam, one of three governors who had been dealing with problems since the state's foster system came under federal court oversight in 2001, told reporters at the time.
Phil Acord, former president of Chattanooga's Chambliss Center for Children, described the bill as "crazy" in a Chattanooga Times Free Press phone interview.
"The worst piece of legislation I ever heard of," said Acord, a former Commission on Children and Youth chairman. "We'll be taking a thousand steps back. It'll be harmful."
Acord said he spoke to Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, about the legislation as well as Hamilton County Juvenile Court Judge Robert Philyaw, describing the judge, who is chairman of the Commission of Children and Youth, as "really upset" over it.
Philyaw's office referred a reporter to the commission. Watson did not respond to a reporter's text.
Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth Executive Director Richard Kennedy said in a phone interview Friday the administration bill caught officials off guard.
"We were really blindsided by this. We had no idea that it was coming," he said. "I think that we were all a little shocked because we know the value that the commission brings to improving outcomes for children, youth and families across the state."
Kennedy said the message of dismantling the commission and embedding its various functions and missions in other agencies fails to account for some things.
"I think what's lost in that message is what makes the commission unique," he said. "It's an independent, consolidated agency that's governed by a 21-member commission appointed by the governor."
Kennedy said the loss of independence is key because for decades advocates across the state and groups have trusted the commission, its data and its ability to bring people out of their respective "silos" to work together. If the state took over, many departments would struggle to do that the same way the commission currently does, he said.
Kennedy said he has "great faith" in the General Assembly, noting the state lawmakers saw a need back in 1987 to create the commission.
"At that time," he said, "they wanted Tennessee to be the best state in the country for children and youth to grow up and live. And so they wanted to embed a children's advocacy organization in state government. I think that we continue to feel that validation from the General Assembly because throughout the years, they've continued to add additional responsibilities for the commission."
Kennedy noted lawmakers moved not too long ago to entrust the agency with housing its new Second Look Commission that looks at incidents of serious physical abuse regarding children.
"Interestingly enough this year, there is a bill that is moving that would create a juvenile justice review commission that will really bring together partners to look at the youth justice system systemically, and they want to place that with us at the commission," he said.
Lee spokeswoman Jade Byers said in a statement that Lee has emphasized a strong commitment to better serve Tennessee children for years, particularly over the past several months.
"As we make significant investments to support the mission of DCS and other family-focused state agencies, we're taking this additional step to foster collaboration and streamline government to ensure we more effectively and efficiently serve at-risk children and families," Byers said.
"To be clear," Byers added, " Tennessee is not cutting services and programs for children or families, but rather, integrating them into state government, meaning that current services and programs will remain intact and be relocated."
She pointed to remarks made by Lee in his State of the State address to lawmakers last month.
"Last fall, we began working anew with our partners in the General Assembly to address the growing challenges in serving at-risk children in Tennessee, and quite frankly, across the country," the governor said. "The needs of Tennessee children have evolved, and our approach to serving them must evolve too."
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-285-9480.