Are children services in Tennessee overburdened? Local behavioral specialist and former educator weigh in

Brandon Paykamian • Feb 24, 2019 at 12:42 AM

In 2018, 780 children in Tennessee were placed in state custody by the Department of Children Services, bringing the current number to around 8,600. Last year, there were nearly 135,000 calls to the 24-hour Child Abuse Hotline and 24,303 child protective investigations.

In 2019, the painstaking work of the department continues in the state and region.

“As of Feb. 19, there were 722 children in foster care in the Northeast Tennessee region. This number includes children and youth who come into custody because of abuse or neglect, and also for being adjudicated delinquent and unruly,” DCS spokeswoman Carrie Weir said.

This is just the tip of the iceberg in the larger scope of children services in the region, according to Susan Lachmann, a behavioral health specialist with Camelot Behavioral Health in Kingsport. Lachmann said she believes the system — encompassing the work of the DCS to find stable homes for children and youth behavioral services for those who are not able — appears overburdened in recent years.

“I am now working in behavioral health providing one-on-one counseling with children in elementary school settings. This gives me somewhat of a bird's-eye view into circumstances and situations affecting young children. The landscape becomes grimmer daily,” she wrote in an emailed statement to the Press.

“The combination of circumstances — which includes the Department of Children Services limitations, lack of foster and adoptive parents and continuing lack of parent skills — continues to put more and more children at risk.”

There has been a statewide push for trauma-informed care for children in Tennessee based on studies into adverse childhood experiences, yet the challenge of fostering stability for children in the region is still an uphill battle. “It’s a numbers game,” Lachmann said.

Lachmann doesn’t believe there are enough personnel in behavioral health, DCS and eligible foster parents to help curb the problem, though the DCS says there are currently around 435 foster homes in the Northeast region and a “solid pool of foster parents.”

”When you have a population that is dysregulated and don’t have good habits — they’re not mentally healthy, emotionally healthy, physically healthy — when you have that population, that adult population can’t serve children well,” she said, adding the cycle of trauma can often continue in foster care, further burdening those who work for children in other sectors.

This is coupled with the fact that caseloads for the DCS can be enormous, too.

Many cases take months to deal with, and the amount of money, resources and personnel available to find stable homes for children in the state and region is finite.

Working through this can be quite the process, according to Weir.

“Whenever there is a need, DCS, in conjunction with external partners, works to identify the right resource for the parents, makes the referral and provides follow up as needed. Plans are developed through a Child & Family Team Meeting process that can include an array of individuals such as parents, relatives, GALS, CASA, teachers, friends, foster parents, etc.,” she pointed out. “If the child or children are in custody, the plan must be approved by the court of jurisdiction.

“If a child must be brought into custody, the department explores the feasibility of placing children with relatives or kin or with a foster family in the child’s own county or neighborhood.”

Based on her six years of working in behavioral health, Lachmann said she believes the requirements for putting children in foster care are not as stringent anymore, adding to concerns from those who have to pick up the pieces when children remain in adverse living conditions. 

“When living in cars under bridges is no longer considered an emergency warranting placement in a warm home with reliable adults, we're in much deeper trouble than we want to believe,” she said. 

As behavioral specialists and DCS officials continually work to find stability for children and youth, school officials and educators play a crucial role, said former local educator Michelle Treece. 

“My first thoughts are that we have some incredibly needy families in Johnson City. We have families that are barely meeting the truly basic needs for their family members,” said Treece, who now serves on the Johnson City Board of Education. 

“We have young children who are making decisions that adults should be making for them. We have children, and that means under the age of 18, who are fending for themselves and their younger siblings and/or young folks that live with them,” she continued. “We have young folks who sleep on the couches — or floor, or where ever they can — of family and friends various nights throughout the week.”

When children fall through the cracks of what Lachmann described as an overburdened children services system, Treece said the schools often notice the issues during school hours.

And as soon as the dismissal bell rings, Treece said that “these kids are back to the absence of their basic physiological needs.”

“As a teacher, the hard part was seeing students wear the same stained or dirty clothes day after day, knowing they haven’t showered or bathed, and knowing that the snacks teachers provided in class was probably more than a snack. The hard part was knowing that my main job was to teach them biology or ecology and realizing that science was the last thing on their mind,” she said.

“Schools are doing a pretty good job for these students during the day,” she continued. “But when these young people leave the school grounds, what they return to is a crumbled foundation that can’t support all they have gained during the day.”

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