News

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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Court Rules Against Sex Offender Facebook Ban

A federal appeals court ruled today that an Indiana law that bans registered sex offenders from accessing Facebook and other social networking sites that can be accessed by children is unconstitutional, the Memphis Commercial Appeals reports. The 7th U.S. Circuit of Appeals in Chicago overturned U.S. District Judge Tanya Walton Pratt’s June decision, saying the “blanket ban” was too broad and didn’t protect children.” Federal judges have barred similar laws in other states.

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Court to Consider Rape Accomplice Law

Under Tennessee law, a victim of statutory rape can be considered an accomplice in the crime, but the state Supreme Court will review a case that could overturn that interpretation, reports The Tennessean. The case involves a 14-year-old girl from Arkansas and a Memphis man, who was convicted of aggravated statutory rape in 2010. Based on a decision from 1895, women in statutory rape cases may be considered accomplices if no “evidence of force” is found. That fact alone is disturbing, but also raises the question of whether evidence beyond the woman’s testimony is necessary to convict the defendant. Observers suggest the court likely will use the case to narrow the definition of “accomplice” to exclude victims of sex crimes.

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Commissioners Seek Legal Opinions on Juvenile Settlement

Shelby County commissioners met this week to air criticisms with a settlement agreement reached between the county Juvenile Court and the U.S. Department of Justice several weeks ago. The commission is questioning whether the agreement can be enacted without its input and approval. Commission chairman Mike Ritz has requested an opinion from the county attorney on that issue. Another commissioner, Terry Roland, has asked the Tennessee attorney general for a ruling as well. Read the latest in the Memphis Commercial Appeal

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Caucus Chair Calls for Bipartisan Meeting on DCS

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner sent letters today to Gov. Bill Haslam, House Speaker Beth Harwell and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey requesting a joint Government Operations Committee meeting to investigate the Department of Children’s Services' (DCS) refusal to release records on child deaths. He also requested an investigation into reports that DCS has returned children to homes where there is evidence of abuse, according to The Tennessean. Turner’s request comes two days after a hearing in Davidson County Chancery Court on a lawsuit brought by The Tennessean and other media outlets around the state. News also came out today that DCS fired two top staffers on Tuesday whose duties at the agency included reviewing the deaths of children.

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Judge to Review DCS Records

Chancellor Carol McCoy said today in court that she will review a sample of records of children who died after being brought to the attention of the Department of Children’s Services (DCS) in order to determine whether the agency is required to release child fatality records. McCoy presides over the lawsuit brought by the Tennessean and a coalition of other news organizations against DCS for allegedly violating the Tennessee Public Records Act by declining to disclose the records of about 30 children who died in the first half of 2012 while under the agency’s supervision.

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Report: Child Protection Improvements Needed

According to the 2012 Annual Report by the Second Look Commission, investigations into severe child abuse cases were left incomplete and failed to address the complicated needs of the family. The 23-page report details eight areas in which Tennessee can improve the protection of children including providing more training for child abuse investigators, Department of Children’s Services (DCS) caseworkers, mental health providers and law enforcement.

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Swafford Talks About Experience as Juvenile Judge

A profile of Bradley County Juvenile Court Judge Daniel Swafford in today’s Cleveland Daily Banner sheds light on his background, the type of situations he faces while sitting on the bench and how he deals with difficult issues such as neglected or abused children and methamphetamine abuse. He touts the innovative ideas the county has adopted, including a juvenile drug court – one of just a few in the state – and a program that uses high school coaches to talk to kids in detention. Reflecting on his service, Swafford says, “I’m blessed to have this job, and I give my best effort every day. [But] I go home sometimes and worry and cry about the stuff I have to deal with. We try to save every family, but some families can’t do it, and you’ve got to move on.”

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Courthouse Dogs Program Helps Children in Court

The Child Advocacy Center of Charlotte and the Courthouse Dogs Foundation recently joined together with Humphreys County court officials to discuss a new program in Waverly. Under the new program, Courthouse Dogs would assist and comfort sexually abused children while they go through forensic interviews and testify in court. The dogs are trained by organizations that are members of Assistance Dogs International. Experts say the dogs play two key roles in the courtroom -- making victims feel safe and less anxious, and reducing stress levels. Learn more from the Leaf Chronicle

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Editorial: Juvenile Court Deal Comes with Price Tag

Compliance with an agreement reached between the U.S Department of Justice (DOJ) and Memphis-Shelby County Juvenile Court last week is "well worth" the estimated cost the county government, the Memphis Flyer argues in an editorial today. However, the paper warns that the price tag of $4.5 to $6.5 million will strain the already financially strapped county government, and that Shelby County Mayor Mark Lutrell's bid for emergency funding from the state will exacerbate the existing shaky relationship he has with the county commission.

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Russia Passes Ban on U.S. Adoptions

Lawmakers in Moscow effectively banned Americans from adopting Russian children by passing a bill that imposes a series of sanctions on U.S. interests, WCYB News reports. The move is widely seen as retaliation against the Magnitsky Act, which President Obama signed on Dec. 14. That law imposes U.S. travel and financial restrictions on human rights abusers in Russia. Russia is one of the top countries of origin for international adoptions in the United States, behind only China, with more than 60,000 Russian children joining American families in the past 20 years.

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Suit Demands DCS Release Public Records

The Tennessean and a coalition of the state’s newspapers, television stations and other media organizations filed a lawsuit Wednesday in Davidson County Chancery Court against the Department of Children’s Services (DCS), alleging the agency is violating the law by refusing to make public the records of children who died after being brought to the agency for attention. According to Waller Lansden Dortch & Davis attorney Robb Harvey, who represents the Tennessean, this is the largest coalition of Tennessee media organizations in terms of number, geographic scope, readership and viewership ever to file a public records lawsuit.

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Deal Reached to Reform Shelby Co. Juvenile System

An agreement to overhaul Shelby County Juvenile Court, expected to cost $4.5 million to $6.5 million, was finalized Monday between court and county officials and the U.S. Department of Justice, The Commercial Appeal reports. The plan, officially announced today, addresses problems such as the disparate treatment of black youths, the high number of youth transferred to adult court, and due process rights violations. If the county doesn't carry out the reforms, federal officials have said they likely would file suit to force changes. While many Memphis officials applauded the plan, members of the Shelby County Commission were surprised by the deal saying they were not asked to weigh in on the agreement. The commission chair reportedly has asked the county attorney for a legal opinion as to whether the mayor has authority to make the agreement without commission approval.

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Task Force Working to Improve Child Protection Efforts

A task force on child protection wants more consistency in how reports of abuse are investigated and how decisions about criminal charges are made in the state. The group, comprised of Department of Children's Services (DCS) officials, doctors, law enforcement, attorneys and child advocates, is set to release a draft of its findings next month, Knoxnews.com says. In its report, the task force is expected to recommend that investigative teams train together; that communication be improved between DCS, law enforcement and community service agencies; and that additional funding be provided to hire more caseworkers and increase current caseworkers’ salaries.

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Williamson County to Swear in First Juvenile Court Judge

Sharon E. Guffee will be sworn in next Wednesday as Williamson County’s first Juvenile Court Judge, the Williamson Herald reports. In June, the Williamson County Commission voted unanimously to appoint Guffee to the position effective Jan. 1, 2013. Guffee is a graduate of the Nashville School of Law and previously worked as an Assistant District Attorney for the 21st Judicial Districts and in private practice.

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Rigsby Sworn in as New Juvenile Magistrate

Melinda Rigsby was sworn in this week as a new magistrate at Davidson County Juvenile Court, filling the vacancy created by the appointment of Sophia Brown Crawford as judge. Rigsby has worked as an assistant District Attorney since 1995 at Juvenile Court and later General Sessions Court. Read more at TN Courts.

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