(Memphis) It has been roughly one year since the On Your Side Investigators filed an open records request with the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services to find out more about children dying in its care.
The agency has also overhauled its staff, and Jim Henry took over for an embattled commissioner who stepped down.
Henry has been on the job six months and made some big changes, but are those changes enough to keep kids safe?
We recently sat down with Commissioner Henry to discuss changes that have already taken place, plus plans for the future.
Lowe: What would you say has changed about the Department, or is different from the day you walked through the door as interim?
Henry: Probably the biggest thing is more people are reporting directly to me and we’ve done three things really important, one is we’ve put a big emphasis on child safety.
According to Henry, the other two are child health, and a continued focus on permanent placement.
There’s also a new Child Death Review Process, a team meets twice a month and includes independent physicians and a safety analyst.
Henry added, “We’ll have a battery of other nurses that will be investigating these deaths to be sure that we’re able to make changes in the future to hopefully prevent some of these deaths.”
Lowe: How much conversation has there been, in talks about maybe we need to be re-looking at some policies and some procedures so that we’re not having a conversation about the child dying?
Henry: We’ve talked about how we can produce more files, how we can solve the problems before they get there, how to recognize when a child’s in trouble.
During our meeting, Henry talked to the On Your Side Investigators about, COMSTAT, a team of workers that reviews cases at random. The team looks at what worked and what didn’t.
“We review the case, we look at the decisions they made, we figure out whether we’ve had too many touches with this kid, should we have taken the kids out earlier,” explains Henry.
DCS workers are also training with the TBI. They focus on areas such as drugs, human trafficking, interview techniques and better file organization.
Henry says they also plan to ask for roughly, $800,000 next year for more training.
“If you really want to keep kids safe, have better investigations. Now that might mean that we put more information out publicly and we might discover more problems and it might mean there’s more cases.”
Speaking of transparency, Henry also promises the release of more information.
Lowe: Is it going to be to the point that we’ve got to go to court every time we, want to (get more information)?
Henry: No, I hope that, that doesn’t happen.
Just recently, in fact, Henry decided DCS would not charge the media for copies of new, fatality records.
He also says they hope to get it right.
Henry said, “We’re not miscounting any numbers anymore.”
Lowe: They don’t believe it. Someone said, it’s not the computer system, they’re hiding fatalities.
Henry: I can assure you we’re not hiding anything here as for as deaths are concerned.
We also talked to Henry about specific cases like the Briggs children, Nicholas and Jeremiah of Memphis. Their mother told police she stabbed them to death.
The state previously had custody of one of them and another sibling.
Henry would only speak in general terms.
“Best practices will tell you that if a child can’t be at home, then the best place to put them is to, someone else that’s close to them, some relative or relative care giver. That’s what we try to do and we check these people out pretty good before we ever put the child in and try not to make those mistakes and of course sometimes things happen.”
We also showed Henry a video message from Susan Randolph.
Randolph is a mother of two, and widow from Dyer County whose husband was shot to death by a neighbor accused of raping and beating his daughter.
DCS placed the girl in the Randolph’s home.
Staffers asked us to cut our cameras off while Henry watched the video.
Henry responded by saying, “We’re going to do what we can to open the process up here within the law, I’ve always been for that since I’ve been here.”
In fact, after showing Henry that video and airing Susan’s story. DCS called her to set up a meeting with Henry.
We also talked with DCS about accountability for workers.
A spokesperson says they have regular performance evaluations, as well as an Internal Affairs division that looks into alleged criminal activity or serious policy violations.