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Bill's Place, Shelby County (Photo from Youth Villages website)

At least 164 children living in facilities operated or licensed by the Tennessee Department of Children's Services have tested positive for COVID-19, the biggest known outbreak in the nation linked to a single child welfare agency.

The children, both boys and girls, tested positive inside county juvenile detention centers licensed by DCS, in 49 residential facilities privately operated by DCS contractors for kids age 10 and up and at Wilder Youth Development Center in Fayette County, a secure facility for teens found delinquent that is managed directly by DCS.

There are 788 cases across the nation of children infected while living in facilities overseen by child welfare agencies, making Tennessee home to one in five of all infected children under state oversight, according to Josh Rovner, senior advocacy associate with The Sentencing Project, which is tracking the spread of COVID-19 among children in state custody.

Only Arizona, with 98 cases of COVID-19 among children overseen by that state's welfare agency, and Florida, with 85, come close to Tennessee, Rovner said.

"As someone who has been tracking COVID-19 in youth facilities since March, I can say that the numbers out of Tennessee are stunning," Rovner said. "It raises important questions about what steps — if any at all — have been taken to slow the spread among this vulnerable and captive population."

Tennessee Lookout is seeking additional information from DCS regarding the locations of new cases and any additional efforts to test, treat and contain the virus.

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Data for COVID-19 testing at DCS sites

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Many of the newly positive children were tested last week, reflecting a surge in coronavirus cases across the state, where record numbers of infections have been reported in recent days.

Of the 164 positive cases among youth, nearly half — 86 — were diagnosed between June 15 and June 22, according to the latest DCS data provided.

COVID-19's rapid spread in residential facilities with large numbers of people, including nursing homes and prisons, has been well-documented. There are also increasing reports of outbreaks among children living full-time in institutional settings — often kids who are in state custody because they have been found delinquent, abused or neglected, or who suffer from severe mental or physical health problems.

Data provided by DCS listed the race, ethnicity and gender of all those tested, but not of the youth who ultimately received positive results. Among the 513 children tested, 209 are African-American males, 179 have unknown race/gender/ethnicity, 66 are white males, seven are Hispanic males, 40 are white females and eight are African-American females.

The first reported outbreak among youth in so-called "congregate care facilities" – therapeutic treatment centers, mental health facilities, juvenile lockups and detention centers for children aged 10 and older — occurred at the Memphis Center for Success and Independence, where 45 of 48 youth and eleven staff members tested positive in May. The facility is operated by private contractor Youth Opportunity Investments.

Soon, other positive cases were found at Compass Intervention Center (Shelby County), Mountain View Academy (Jefferson County), Bill's Place (Shelby County) and Bledsoe Youth Academy (Sumner County).

"The recent spike is all the more troubling because Tennessee already saw a massive number of cases in Memphis in late April and early May," Rovner said. "That was the largest number of cases at any youth facility anywhere in America, and I have to ask how the state's other facilities responded to this predictable and predicted crisis."

Thus far, 80 children have recovered.

Three teenage boys from Tennessee, ranging in age from 13-18, who had been sent out of state by DCS to a Kalamazoo, Michigan, facility for troubled youth returned positive for COVID-19 in early May. The boys were brought back to Tennessee after another boy, who was not from Tennessee, was found to be positive for COVID-19 after his suspicious death, involving an altercation with a staff member.

One of the five boys was placed in quarantine at Mountain View Academy for Young Men, a DCS institution for delinquent youth whose operations are subcontracted to Wayne Halfway House, a private operator.

Two of the boys were quarantined at Bill's Place, a residential facility with 90 children operated by Youth Villages in Shelby County.

At Wilder Youth Development Center, where at least four staff members tested positive, 31 boys have also tested positive after mass testing at the secure lockup, about 35 miles from Memphis.

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