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Drugs a big issue for DCS commissioner, department

March 18th, 2014 8:34 pm by Tony Casey

Drugs a big issue for DCS commissioner, department

Tennessee DCS Commissioner Jim Henry discusses foster care with Amber and Greg Stewart. (Tony Casey/.Johnson City Press)

There are two sides to every story, said Tennessee Department of Children’s Services Commissioner Jim Henry, and he intends to make sure the other side of the story is heard in regards to recent child deaths in Tennessee, many of which were blamed on DCS.

Tuesday, during a Northeast Regional Visit, which includes the upper eight counties in Northeast Tennessee, Henry spoke to staff, resource parents, and community partners at Elizabethon’s DCS office. He tackled some of the issues the DCS has had to go against in recent years, including the difficulty they’ve faced in investigating and tracking the death of children across the state, especially under former commissioner Kate O’Day, whose resignation in February 2013 prompted Henry’s appointed into the interim position before Governor Bill Haslam put him in the position permanently.

“Lots of bad things are happening that we’re getting blamed for,” Henry said. “If you’re a drug mom and you’re thinking you’re only going to tell your side of the story, those days are gone.”

Henry said a lot of these bad things being pasted across the media were the result of confidentiality restraints, but given the state of affairs with the DCS, he was going to, “tell it just like it is.”

For example, Henry brought up the “Brian A” lawsuit, where a nine-year-old child had been living in an overcrowded Shelby County emergency shelter, as reporter by The Tennessean in October 2012. Henry said the 14-year-old lawsuit has used up quite a bit of energy and resources. Past criticisms of the department’s ability to report and produce data on child deaths, as required by law, had Henry saying the DCS were going above and beyond what have been required of other state’s DCS departments.

Improvements have been made, he said, in the way of getting money and resources where they’re most needed, which includes improvements to DCS offices, welfare waiver demonstration projects, transparency, increased communications, like Henry’s Open Line updates, which are weekly correspondences between the Commissioner and DCS’ partners and providers. He was happy to share that Haslam had approved all requests made by the DCS in their budget, but said that could come with some bad news for the Northeast Region and improvements to local offices.

“The last place that’s getting attention is out here,” Henry said, that improvements would start on the west side of the state and move this way.

In an opposite pattern, Henry pointed at east Tennessee’s big problem with drug use, which pertains to the work DCS does. He said often drugs start in this part of the state and work their way to Memphis and are linked to poverty. He pointed to some of the hardest working people in American history who worked in the mountains of Appalachia and after never embraced education like other parts of the country.

“One of the biggest problems in the state is right here,” Henry said, pointing at what he called the skyrocketing occurrences of neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) in the region.

After his talk, he was set to head out to meet with Judge William B. Hawkins, of Mountain City, who, Henry said, along with other judges he met with, are receptive to the needs of families, not necessarily with a propensity to break up a family because of things like drug use. The funding would have to be there though, Henry told one set of foster parents, Amber and Greg Stewart, who asked about state funding to help get parents into drug rehab so they could take the necessary steps in getting custody of their children.

“I don’t want to see kids going back into drug-infested homes,” Henry told Amber Stewart, who was their with her husband to be honored as a foster parent.

Deputy Commissioner Scott Modell said the hotline used to report potential abuse of neglect situations had been working better than every lately, and that most calls into the hotline were answered within 20 seconds and that each call, regardless if it was deemed a case of abuse or neglect, would be reviewed to make sure. After the question was raised, Modell said it was the intention of DCS to share with parties obligated to report such cases, to make them know there are dedicated lines for pediatricians, school counselors, and the like.

The Hickmans, Mark and Vickie, or Kingsport were recently deemed Tennessee’s Foster Family of the Year winners, and were in attendance Tuesday. They’d recently expanded their family by five people, through the help of their place of worship, Holy Mountain Baptist Church.

Mark Hickman joked that their dining room table got larger, as did their house when they recently added the last of three foster children to their brood. Vickie Hickman said their faith is why they expanded their family.

“In our case, the Lord leaned on our heart to adopt,” she said.

Faith-based adoptions and fostering is a direction Henry wants to move Tennessee’s DCS towards, as it was around 30 years ago, before licensing became too difficult for church organizations to maintain. He said Tennessee is working with Focus on the Family, which, in the past, has been controversial with founder James Dobson’s anti-gay, anti-abortion stances.

Focus on the Family, Henry said, put forth and effort to increase adoption in Tennessee and, as a result, saw 122 families move toward the process of adoption from foster care.

For more information on the Northeast Region’s adoption and foster care process, call (423) 979-5220 or the Foster Care/Adoption Hotline at 1-877-DCS-KIDS (327-5437).

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