Proposed DCS Budget Calls for Changes in Juvenile Detention Program

Security upgrades and a “revamped” program are in store for Tennessee’s three main youth development centers across the state.

“The youth development centers are being revamped to provide more trauma-informed and therapeutic services, with Woodland Hills undergoing the initial changes and creating a model we will deploy to the other YDCs,” Jim Henry, commissioner of the Department of Children’s Services, said last week at his department’s preliminary budget presentation for the coming fiscal year.

The Nashville-area youth development center gained national attention earlier this fall as a result of a couple successful escape attempts and rioting at the facility.

The state has since announced it’ll send 12 of the more serious break-out offenders from that facility to youth centers in Texas for the remainder of their sentences as they reexamine the program at Woodland Hills.

Henry said the department is working at “changing the culture” at the centers. Helping teens get their GEDs and keeping consistent staffing as well as therapeutic services are among their goals, he said.

“We want to change to a mentoring system, one that rewards good behavior, one where kids can step up and make right decisions and get rewarded for it and not just be held,” Henry said.

The state holds 280 males in its three YDCs: Woodland Hills, the Mountain View facility in Northeast Tennessee and the John S. Wilder facility in West Tennessee.

The department first plans to install locks on it’s YDC cell doors before the end of the year, Henry said. The facilities already have court permission to lock the rooms in emergency situations. However, the department is seeking a court order for permission to lock the doors at night due to a longtime consent decree that doesn’t allow the cells to be locked on a regular schedule.

Henry said locking the doors at night would be helpful to keeping the peace because the troublemakers will tell other kids they’re planning to cause trouble for the guards, and threaten to “deal with” them the next day if they don’t participate.

Additionally, Henry would like the guards to carry stun guns and pepper spray, to be used only as a last resort if things get out of hand.

Only a small portion of the department’s $730 million budget request is intended to fund the YDCs — about $33 million. The state allocation request represents $311 million of the department’s budget, with $152 million of the overall budget coming from federal funds and $267 million coming from “other revenue.”

In addition to managing the state’s juvenile detention centers, DCS also provides child welfare and adoption services. In recent years the department has been embroiled in controversies stemming from delayed child abuse investigations, as well as the unexplained deaths of youth in their custody.

While the department is proposing cuts from state allocations totaling about $8 million, most of which — $7.8 million — will come from the YDCs, the DCS budget proposal also includes about $6 million in cost increases. The department is also proposing to cut about 90 positions.

Funding for the state’s custody services makes up the largest portion of the budget request — nearly 40 percent or $276.6 million.

Earlier this year Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam asked departments to prepare budget requests reflecting a seven percent cut from last year. However, Haslam has said this is not a sign of definite cuts , but is merely a part of the normal budget process. Last year Haslam had asked departments to prepare budgets with a five percent decrease.