Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey has expressed confidence that Republicans in control of state government will soon start whipping the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services into shape.
Ramsey told reporters on Thursday he believes Republicans “have proven, with the leadership in the Senate and leadership in the House and the governor, we can tackle a tough problem and solve it.”
“It will take a little while, a year or two probably, but we can fix it,” he said of the troubled agency. Ramsey made his comments after delivering remarks at an Associated Press-sponsored forum on issues in the 2013 General Assembly.
On Feb. 5 Gov. Bill Haslam accepted the resignation of Kate O’Day, who’d served as DCS commissioner since January 2011. The agency has been the focus of criticism from lawmakers and the media for its handling of cases involving abused and neglected children.
The same day O’Day resigned, Haslam appointed Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Commissioner Jim Henry to serve as interim head of DCS.
In a presentation before the Tennessee Senate Health and Welfare Committee last week, Henry vowed to improve agency transparency and chart a course of reform.
“I am not going to be an interim commissioner just babysitting for the next commissioner to come on board,” said Henry. “I promise you, I will not be passive, or a caretaker. I will attack these problems as they exist.”
Henry said his priority is to “ensure that the next commissioner will not have to build the ship again, but will get on a ship that is headed in the right direction.”
Lt. Gov. Ramsey noted that DCS dysfunction is “nothing new.”
“I remember the previous commissioner under (Democratic Gov. Phil) Bredesen was honored by some national organization and I think every legislator, including Democrats, were shocked by that because (DCS) was not being run well then and had its problems,” said the Blountville Republican. Ramsey has served as speaker of the state Senate since 2007, when he defeated Democrat John Wilder for the chamber’s top slot.
Often when the subject has come up of late, Gov. Bill Haslam, too, has pointed out that DCS’s woes are chronic in nature.
“Running DCS is incredibly difficult,” said Haslam upon being asked about O’Day’s departure following a speech he gave to the Tennessee Press Association Feb. 7. “As somebody told me, DCS has been in existence for like 16 years and they’ve had 16 bad years in a row. It’s the product of a merger, six different departments, there’s a lot of systems issues that haven’t worked out.”
Democrats, however, charge that with Republicans now in power DCS is in a sorrier state than just a few years ago. In their enthusiasm to revamp legislative processes and reduce “duplication and fragmentation,” Ramsey and GOP House Speaker Beth Harwell rashly eliminated legislative committees with the power to probe and monitor DCS, House Democrats said in a press conference last month.
Since 2001 DCS has been laboring to get out from under federal court oversight following a lawsuit over its handling and supervision of foster care children.
A coalition of Tennessee media outlets, led by the The Tennessean, is suing DCS to gain access to agency records pertaining to more than 200 children who died or were gravely harmed under DCS’s watch since 2009.
Haslam last week defended his administration’s handling of the media coalition’s open-records request and the subsequent lawsuit. State officials have offered to release more records than have been available in the past, but state and federal statutes mandate that care be taken to prevent identifying information about victimized children and families from becoming public, said the governor.
A department attorney made the state’s case before the Senate Health and Welfare Committee alongside Commissioner Henry last week.
“This very broad request would have allowed not just the media but any member of the genera public for any reason, good or ill, to identify those children and their families, to know where they live, to know their phone numbers, to know other personal details — to view the entire case files of these children who died or nearly died because of neglect,” Douglas E. Dimond, general counsel for the Department of Children’s Services, told the Senate committee following Henry’s presentation.
Dimond said the files requested by the media coalition included pictures of abused children and interviews conducted by agency investigators with victims “wherein they graphically described the sexual and or physical abuse that they suffered.”
“It would have been an extremely broad representation of private lives of children and families who deserve protection,” Dimond told lawmakers.
Last month a Davidson County Chancery Court judge ruled that the department must turn over redacted copies of certain files requested. The state responded last week that the cost of producing those records would run more than $55,000.