The Tennessee Department of Children's Services is embarking on more than $400 million worth of construction projects to handle children entering state custody and improve problematic detention centers.
Six months after removing the last children from state offices because they had nowhere else to go, the department Thursday received approval to start work on an assessment center and two intake facilities, nine facilities total, in the state's three grand divisions at a cost of $88.3 million.
The State Building Commission approved those projects in addition to $333 million for a new Woodland Hills Youth Detention Center in Nashville, which will add 72 beds, and improvements at John S. Wilder Youth Detention Center in Fayette County, where reports of abuse by guards, riots and poor living conditions have been rampant. A new Wilder center also is to be built to house another 24 to 48 minors, potentially bringing its population up to nearly 170.
"It's gonna lay the groundwork for what we hope is the future of DCS kids in placement," Department of Children's Services Commissioner Margie Quin said.
The department believes upgrades at Wilder are critical for the facility, which can house up to 120 teens who've committed serious crimes.
In late 2022, lawmakers discussed the need for about 60 more beds at Wilder after a panel of juvenile judges testified that county detention facilities were full and the state's juvenile justice system was at "near collapse."
Children in state custody also were forced to stay in Children's Services offices for extended periods because of a shortage of foster care families and heavy workload. The last children were removed from Memphis offices in late March.
During a visit to the Children's Services office in Nashville last week to recognize employees, Gov. Bill Lee pointed out the state increased funding by $600 million this year for the department, in part to improve pay so it can retain and hire more social workers and staff to deal with the number of children entering state custody and needing foster care.
"We've made some significant partnerships and mitigated some of the biggest challenges we've had on child placement so we can get them out of our facilities and into better transition homes," Lee said as he congratulated department employees for their efforts in trying to solve a "lot of heartbreaking situations."
The governor acknowledged Children's Services has improvements to make but said he believes the state is making strides to bolster services to children in its custody.
But while state officials are touting their efforts, Jasmine Miller, an attorney with Youth Law Center, doesn't consider the expenditure for more security and beds at Woodland Hills and Wilder the best strategy.
"You can't run or staff the facility you currently have. Why is building a bunch more of them going to fix the problem?" Miller said.
The organization put out a report with Disability Rights of Tennessee in December 2022 showing problems at detention facilities and pointing out Children's Service needs to focus on families rather than facilities.
The department acknowledged a decade ago it needed to move from large prison settings to smaller facilities closer to children's homes and work more closely with families. Yet, it seems to have shifted philosophies in favor of bigger detention facilities that create more problems by putting large groups of young people together, Miller said.
The state has about 625 children in juvenile justice, but only a small number of them are in "secure" facilities, she pointed out.
"Building these facilities does not say anything about services and what would be available to young people if they're in that facility or in the community," Miller said.
Read more at TennesseeLookout.com.