News

Juvenile Offender Program May Lose Funding, Close

The REAL program (Reaching Excellence As Leaders), which helps keep juvenile offenders from returning to the system, is in danger of closing when a grant from the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth expires June 30. Over the past three years, the program has helped more than 300 young people, with 85 percent not reoffending after graduation. The Justice Policy Institute listed Tennessee as one of the top five states in the nation for reducing juvenile confinement. WKRN has the story.

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Support Building for Blount Youth Court

Members of the Leadership Blount Class of 2013 are creating a youth court program in the county as their class service project. Under the youth court model, nonviolent, first-time offenders who admit guilt are able to avoid court costs and keep offenses off their records by submitting to peer sentencing. Class members, including Knoxville attorney Lynn Peterson with Lewis, King, Krieg & Waldrop, who is spearheading the project, hope it will be up and running by the start of the next school year. Blount County Juvenile Judge Terry Denton has signed off on the program and an editorial in the Daily Times calls on county residents to “jump at this opportunity” to “steer wayward young people back on path before compiling a record of misbehavior that follows them into adulthood.”

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DCS Found Liable for Shooting Deaths, Injuries

The state Department of Children’s Services (DCS) has been found liable in the deaths of a teenager and her foster father as well as for injuries to the girl’s foster mother after the biological father went on a shooting rampage. In a ruling that was unsealed last week, a judge ordered DCS to pay $875,000 after the agency was found to have overlooked a prior domestic violence charge against the father and notes in a report that he “acts like a pedophile.” The DCS caseworker also admitted backdating her signature to a date prior to the shooting on the paperwork placing the girl with the foster parents. She also was found to have checked “no” on the form as to whether there was serious physical harm to the child despite evidence to the contrary. Read more in NWTNTODAY.

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DCS Rehires Director Fired in January

Interim Commissioner of the Department of Children’ Services Jim Henry has rehired Debbie Miller, the agency’s former executive director of family and child well-being, the Nashville City Paper reports. Miller was removed from the department in early January by former commissioner Kathyrn O’Day. “The department had a recent vacancy and Commissioner Henry asked Ms. Miller to return. He has known her work for many years and respects her skills and experience in the area of child welfare,” a spokeswoman for DCS said.

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DCS Revises Child Death Rates Upward

The Tennessee Department of Children’s Services (DCS) has revised its child death statistics upward. Since January, it has reported that 73 children brought to its attention died in 2012, but it now says the correct number is 105. For 2011, the number of children who died has increased 47 to 91. Newly appointed DCS Deputy Director Scott Modell said those numbers are now accurate, and blamed previous problems on errors in the agency’s computer system, the fact that data was not kept in one central place, and a lack of agreement on how to define the deaths of certain children. The Tennessean has more.

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Court Affirms End to 'John B.' TennCare Agreement

The 15-year-old legal agreement that mandated regular medical and dental care for some 750,000 of the state’s poorest children was thrown out today by a federal appeals court, the Tennessean reports. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit upheld federal judge Thomas Wiseman Jr.'s decision that Tennessee is now meeting federal requirements, effectively terminating the “John B.” agreement that had mandated compliance. Attorneys from the Tennessee Justice Center, which filed the original suit, say there are still serious concerns over whether children are receiving the services to which they are entitled.

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Bills Take on Drug Addiction and Pregnancy

A proposal that would put pregnant women at the front of the line for drug treatment programs passed a state House subcommittee Tuesday. The “Safe Harbor Act” also would prevent newborns from being taken from families by the Department of Children’s Services solely because of drug use during pregnancy. It is one of four proposals concerning babies born addicted to prescription drugs working their way through the General Assembly, the Tennessean reports. The bill now moves to the Health Committee.

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DCS Commissioner Says Agency Making Improvements

Department of Children’s Services Interim commissioner Jim Henry told a House Government Operations Committee today that improvements have been made since he stepped in about a month ago. Henry said changes include having regional administrators call his personal cell phone when a child is reported dead and immediately notifying lawmakers in that child's district. A death review process has also been established and cases are reviewed monthly. Knoxnews has the story. 

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DCS Reports More on Child Fatalities

The Department of Children’s Services has released new details about the deaths of 25 children in state custody in 2011 and 2012, the Tennessean reports. The 113-page report was released in advance of hearings at the state legislature next week in which the DCS is expected to answer wide-ranging questions about the agency’s ability to serve the state’s children, data problems, rumored difficulties about DCS staff cooperating with law enforcement and unanswered calls at its child abuse hotline. Critics of the agency point out that the report does not answer lawmakers’ questions regarding the number of children who died after being investigated for abuse or neglect but who were not taken from their homes into custody. Interim Commissioner Jim Henry and other DCS officials are expected to answer questions at a separate hearing next week as well.

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Memphis Law Symposium to Focus on Trafficking

The University of Memphis Law Review’s annual symposium will be held March 22. The full-day event will look at the issue of human trafficking in the court system from an international, national, statewide and local perspective. Tennessee recently passed some of the strongest anti-trafficking laws in the country, which means these cases likely will arise more frequently in state courts. The symposium will feature speakers from state and local law enforcement, federal agencies and nonprofit organizations. Learn more or register online.

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Tennessee Sees Biggest Drop in Juvenile Detention

The rate of juvenile detention has fallen to its lowest national level in 35 years, with Tennessee experiencing the biggest drop, a new analysis of federal statistics shows. “Reducing Youth Incarceration in the U.S.,” released last week by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, shows a significant decline in confinement of people younger than 21. The findings also reflect a trend toward treating youthful infractions less harshly than in the past. Local reaction included comments by Knox County juvenile officials, who attributed the drop to a unified approach by law enforcement, the courts and community groups. And in an editorial, the Elizabethton Star praised the news but warned that sustainable programs to help young people and families need to be in place over the course of their lives.

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DCS: Computer System Mostly Fixed

The Department of Children's Services reported on Friday that all major problems with its computer system have been fixed, and that a list of 1,700 defects identified a year ago has been reduced to just 383 minor issues. After a review of agency data, Commissioner Jim Henry said that 14 children died in DCS custody in 2011, while 11 more died in 2012. Henry said he hopes to be able to report "in the near future" on the larger group of children who died after having some interaction with DCS but were not taken into custody. DCS previously reported that at least 73 children fell into that category. WBIR Channel 10 has the story.

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Applications Accepted for Juvenile Judge

The Hamilton County Commission is taking applications to fill the Juvenile Court judge vacancy created by the retirement of Judge Suzanne Bailey. The commission will hold public interviews on April 3 at 1 p.m., with additional interviews scheduled for April 4 if necessary. So far, Juvenile Magistrate Troy McDougal and attorneys Curtis Bowe, Rob Filyaw and Ron Powers have expressed interest the Chattanoogan reports.

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DCS Promises Swift, Deliberate Fixes

Officials now heading up the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services (DCS) say they’re seeking swift, but deliberate solutions to problems that have plagued the agency -- though they still are not able to give a definitive answer about how many children who have come into contact with DCS have died. Interim Commissioner Jim Henry told The Tennessean that the agency’s $27 million computer system appears to be improving as glitches are found and fixed. Larry Martin, a longtime aide to Gov. Bill Haslam, also is on board and promises to deal with whatever problems are found. The Memphis Daily News has the story.

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Four in the Running for Juvenile Court Judge

Four attorneys have expressed interest in applying for the Juvenile Court judge vacancy caused by Judge Suzanne Bailey’s April 30 retirement. The Chattanoogan reports that Juvenile Court Magistrate Troy McDougal and attorneys Rob Filyaw, Ron Powers and Curtis Bowe are eying the position, although county commission chairman Larry Henry said he expects several more candidates to come forward prior to the expected appointment on May 1.

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Shelter Dogs Give Comfort During Juvenile Court

Franklin Juvenile Court Judge Sharon Guffee has invited dogs from the county’s shelter to comfort children once a week at the courthouse while the adults deal with cases involving foster care, abuse, and neglect. Kids are encouraged to pet the animals or sit with them during court sessions. While Judge Guffee has not researched the benefits of using therapy dogs in a courtroom, she has seen positive effects in juvenile detention centers and elsewhere. She told the Tennessean that in just a few short weeks of having dogs at the courthouse, she has seen more smiles.

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Herenton Looks to Expand Juvenile School to Nashville

Former Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton is on track to open the Thurgood Marshall Charter School this fall for Memphis and Shelby County youth in juvenile court custody. In a recent interview with WREG News 3 in Memphis, Herenton also announced he has been approached by Nashville leaders interested in opening a similar school there. He also disclosed plans to pursue a partnership with former NFL legend Jim Brown, who runs a gang intervention and character development program.

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Hamilton County Juvenile Judge Retiring in April

After nearly 30 years working with Hamilton County children through the juvenile court, Judge Suzanne Bailey will step down in April. The Times Free Press reports that the Hamilton County Commission will have the duty to appoint her replacement and that individual will hold the position until elections in August 2014. Commission Chairman Larry Henry said he has already heard from five people interested in the position. The commission will advertise the opening in coming weeks, Henry said.

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DCS Head Resigns; Interim Commissioner Named

Department of Children’s Services (DCS) Commissioner Kate O’Day resigned today, leaving behind a child welfare department struggling with numerous issues, reports The Tennessean. O’Day’s departure comes a day before a legislative hearing at which she had been scheduled to speak and a day after the department said it would cost at least $55,585 to gather and release child deaths records being sought in a lawsuit. Over the past year, DCS has faced scrutiny over a series of problems, including the death of children in state care, inaccurate data about the deaths, a child abuse hotline that left calls unanswered, a spike in violence at juvenile detention centers, a computer system that doled out improper payments and a high level of executive staff turnover. Gov. Bill Haslam named Jim Henry, who currently heads up the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, to replace O’Day as interim commissioner.

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New Rules Take On Childhood Obesity

In an effort to combat childhood obesity, the U.S. Department of Agriculture proposed new rules Friday that would limit the sale of candy, high-calorie drinks, and greasy food in school vending machines and lunchrooms. According to the Memphis Daily News, the proposal would set fat, calorie, sugar and sodium limits on almost all foods and drinks. Elementary and middle schools could only sell 8-ounce portions of low-fat milk or 100 percent fruit or vegetable juice, while high schools would be limited to 12 ounce portions of some sports drinks, diet sodas and iced teas.

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Grant Expands Juvenile Court Mental Health Project

Tennessee has received a  $221,000 federal grant to expand a juvenile court project that between August 2010 and July 2012 screened more than 2,600 youth and referred almost 1,400 juveniles for mental health, substance abuse and family services, WRCB News 3 reports. The grant will increase the use of evidence-based therapeutic practices for the juvenile justice population, and allow the program to expand into more counties.

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Sumner CASA Receives 3 Grants

The Court Appointed Special Advocate program in Sumner County recently was awarded nearly $30,000 in grants from three organizations, reports The Tennessean. The funding came from The Dan and Margaret Maddox Charitable Fund ($5,900), The Memorial Foundation ($20,000) and The Tennessee Bar Foundation ($3,500). Funds will be used to train and support volunteers to advocate for the abused and neglected children in the county.

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DCS Ordered to Produce Child Death Records in One Week

A federal judge on Friday ordered the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services (DCS) to turn over child fatality records within seven days and to overhaul its fatality review process within 90 days, reports The Tennessean. Judge Todd J. Campbell said he has become impatient with the agency’s inability to accurately count child deaths and that time is running out for DCS to fix the computer system it uses to keep records. Also last week, Gov. Bill Haslam appointed a special adviser to probe the department, naming his former mayoral deputy and retired Knoxville banker Larry Martin to the post.

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Judge Hopes to Expand Drug Court for Moms

Shelby County Drug Court Judge Tim Dwyer sees the good his court is doing and wants to expand it. There are 13 mothers in the program, affecting 45 children, but he would like to be able to offer the services to 30 women. The special drug court pairs Dwyer up with the district attorney's office, juvenile court and Memphis police. If a mother gives birth to a baby addicted to drugs, she's now charged with reckless endangerment. Her only options are jail time or the treatment program. "We've got a long way to go," Dwyer says, "but at least were doing something." ABC24.com has the story

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Judge Orders DCS to Release Child Death Records

Davidson County Chancery Court Judge Carol McCoy this week ordered the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services (DCS) to release the forms it fills out when a child dies in its care. Each form provides information about the child’s cause of death, the department’s prior involvement, and prior services provided to the child. The ruling came in response to a lawsuit filed Dec. 19, 2012, by The Tennessean and a coalition of a dozen other news organizations. Responding to the court, Gov. Bill Haslam said the state would provide the records, reports The Tennessean. In related news, officials announced yesterday they had discovered nine more cases of children who died during the past two years while under the supervision of DCS. The News Sentinel has more on that story.

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