NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Tennessee agency that has faced heightened scrutiny for failures in oversight of the state's most vulnerable children is requesting a quick influx of $26.6 million, aimed at keeping youth from having to sleep in administrative state offices or in transitional housing, among other pressing problems.
Tennessee Department of Children's Services Commissioner Margie Quin unveiled the request to a state House panel Monday.
It includes $20.4 million allocated to increase the rates for care providers, which is expected to add 118 beds for kids. There's also a request for $4.1 million to add 48 clinical assessment beds that help identify the next placement for a child, while providing medical and mental health treatment; and $2.1 million to incentivize more foster care placements for teenagers and groups of siblings.
The request for funding follows a sweeping audit that identified a host of problems at the agency. It underscored reports of high employee turnover over the past two years and challenges to find proper temporary housing. It also stressed that the state’s failure to investigate abuse and neglect allegations contributed to putting children’s health, safety and wellbeing at risk. Democratic lawmakers have long deemed the agency's woes as a crisis that demands immediate changes to protect vulnerable youth.
“We know that this will move the needle. This is going to be progress," Quinn told lawmakers. "I’m not going to sit here and tell you that this is going to fix it. I’ll know more in six to nine months about where this is going to get us.”
In addition to the new funding request, Republican officials in Tennessee have proposed several ideas aimed at addressing vulnerable young people.
A joint legislative committee last week recommended several juvenile justice changes. Some seek to expand funding or services, including for chaplains, mental health treatment, training and pay; and programs that allow juveniles in hardened facilities transition to homelike settings for good behavior.
Others double-down on hardened facilities for youth offenders, including a call for 180 to 190 additional male beds and 25 more female beds on the Wilder Youth Development Center campus in Somerville. They also would reduce the age from 18 to 17 years old at which officials can transfer “extremely uncooperative and violent” teens from youth development centers to adult facilities in the Department of Correction's prison system.
Zoë Jamail, policy coordinator of Disability Rights TN, said lawmakers are “confusing a symptom of the problem for the cause.” The watchdog group last year released a report about the Wilder facility, concluding that it runs like a “dangerous jail.” The facility houses youth up to 19 years old who have committed serious offenses as juveniles, but were not adjudicated to adult status in court.
"The lack of space in group homes, residential treatment, and youth prison facilities is not due to increases in the number of youth in state custody, nor is it reflective of a shift in what our youth need to grow and thrive," Jamail said. "Rather, the state is warehousing youth in highly restrictive settings because our system is fundamentally failing to do what the law requires: building and supporting families."
Additionally, House Speaker Cameron Sexton has said he supports a requirement to try teens as adults for certain violent crimes.
Republican Gov. Bill Lee has already said he hopes to funnel more resources into the Department of Children's Services for the budget year beginning in July. He'll release his proposed budget next week. If approved, Quin's request Monday would kick in before the new fiscal year.
The supplemental spending proposal would not increase wages for case managers. That pay hike is among the $156 million in 2023-2024 cost increases that she is seeking, which go beyond the emergency funding request.
Quinn is asking for an additional $15.8 million to boost case manager pay next budget year and a separate $30 million to increase the amount of funding available to help place children in temporary housing.
On average, DCS is in custody of more than 8,000 children, many of whom are the victims of neglect and abuse.
Quin said three to 30 children per night are staying in state offices and transitional settings. Some have remained in the hospital for extra long periods, as well.
And while it takes less than a day on average for a younger child to get placed into foster care, Quin said it takes about 22 days for older youth, who wait in offices or transitional homes. Larger sibling groups also have more difficulty securing foster care, she said. Some 400 children are expected to benefit from the foster care incentive boost, the department said.
Additionally, 170 children have been placed into care outside Tennessee. Quin said the department currently sends youth out of state for clinical assessment. The $4.1 million for 48 assessment beds aims to address that.