Tennessean | “Tennessee child advocates raise alarm as GOP moves to dissolve child advocacy commission”

March 16, 2023

View original article here.

Melissa Brown and Josh Keefe, Nashville Tennessean (Published March 16, 2023)

Multiple Tennessee child advocacy experts say they are alarmed by a sudden move from a top-ranking legislative Republican to dissolve an independent children’s advocacy commission and distribute its responsibilities to other state agencies.

Senate Majority Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, was set to present Senate Bill 282 on Wednesday to the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, but the legislation, backed by Gov. Bill Lee’s administration, was ultimately delayed to next week.

The lengthy bill essentially strips any mentions of the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth from state code.

The move comes just months after the commission released a report finding Tennessee foster kids experience the highest levels of instability in U.S., one of several recent scathing audits into systemic failures at the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services.

An independent ombudsmen responsible for DCS oversight, currently housed at Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth, would be moved to the Department of Human Services under the proposed bill.

“We were really caught off guard and weren’t consulted on the bill or the movement of the programs,” said Kylie Graves, director of the Second Look Commission. That commission investigates severe child abuse in Tennessee and is tasked with making policy recommendations to the legislature.

“There’s really significant value in having an independent state agency that looks at issues across the childhood spectrum,” Graves said. “It’s really concerning to be removing that at a time when children are in such a crisis across the state.”

Graves’ concerns were echoed multiple times on Wednesday ahead of the Senate committee hearing, as those potentially affected scrambled to better understand the proposal. Johnson’s bill was first filed as a caption bill, a type of placeholder for legislation to come later in the session.

Some questioned the decision to remove the independent oversight mechanism and give additional responsibilities to DHS and DCS, which Tennessee’s own state Comptroller found to have myriad administrative issues, including staff failures to adequately investigate dozens of reports of sexual abuse and sexual harassment allegations in its state residential facilities.

Commission would be removed from key taskforce

Among the bill’s proposed changes, the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth would be removed from a taskforce overseen by DCS aimed at detecting and preventing child sexual abuse.

The Department of Human Services in recent years has also faced scrutiny. The department oversees the state’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, which at one point had more than $740 million in untapped federal funds. The department also faced challenges distributing pandemic food aid to children.

“We’re in the midst of trying to work through how we can improve our child welfare system,” said Dr. Stephen Patrick, director of the Vanderbilt Center for Child Health Policy. “And this to me seems like not the time to sunset something like TCCY, and in particular, move some of its core functions to DCS. I think all of this seems sudden, and for me, it’s worrisome.”

In a statement, Disability Rights Tennessee spokesperson Zoe Jamail said the group is “incredibly concerned” about the proposed bill. In an independent investigation of a DCS detention center last year, Disability Rights recommended the state establish more oversight over DCS. A legislative committee last year appeared to agree, proposing a new juvenile justice review commission to be housed under the commission’s umbrella.

If lawmakers were to pass the bill proposing a new review commission and dissolve the TCCY, Jamail said, DCS could be put in charge of that commission.

“This would leave DCS responsible for its own oversight, which is cause for significant concern especially in light of the state of turmoil the department has been in,” Jamail said.

Bill pushed by Lee administration

The bill did not come from DCS, said spokesperson Alex Denis, who said questions about the reasoning behind the bill should be directed to the governor’s office. Johnson has not yet returned a Tennessean request for comment.

Lee’s office did not answer a specific question about why his administration is pushing to dismantle the commission. In a statement, Lee’s spokesperson said the proposal is a “another meaningful step to better serve Tennessee children by incorporating important services and programs within various child and family-serving state agencies, including DCS.”

“To be clear, 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,” spokesperson Jade Byers said.

Kristen Davis, president and CEO of Nurture The Next, a child social services organization, believes the commission is the only agency in Tennessee with a “laser focus” on children’s issues.

“They’ve long been sort of the folks who have been able to spark initiatives to prevent child abuse and neglect, to promote healthy development,” Davis said. “It’s concerning to me that without them there could be results of increased rates of abuse and neglect.”

The Tennessee Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics also opposes the bill, with chapter president Dr. Jason Yaun writing to Senate Health Committee members expressing support for TCCY.

“Their independence along with the rotating appointments, allows for a more stable, consistent, and respected agency serving our state’s children and families across changes in the administration and legislature,” Yaun wrote.

“With all the challenges Tennessee Department of Children’s Services (DCS) is facing, they are not in an acceptable position to manage the programs effectively provided by TCCY.”

Reach Melissa Brown at mabrown@tennessean.com and Josh Keefe at jkeefe@tennessean.com.

Disability Rights Tennessee (DRT), along with our partners at Youth Law Center (YLC), have been closing investigating and monitoring the ongoing situation regarding conditions within Department of Children’s Services facilities. You can read our two investigative reports, “Designed to Fail” (April 2022) and “Families Not Facilities” (December 2022) at the links below.