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DCS tackles ‘toughest job in state government’

October 14th, 2013 9:01 am by Hank Hayes

DCS tackles ‘toughest job in state government’

A 26-year-old mother with pink highlights in her hair appeared visibly nervous as she spoke to Chris Franklin outside a small rundown house on a ridge in Hancock County near the Tennessee-Virginia border.

SNEEDVILLE — A 26-year-old mother with pink highlights in her hair appeared visibly nervous as she spoke to Chris Franklin outside a small rundown house on a ridge in Hancock County near the Tennessee-Virginia border.

The mother seemed particularly intimidated by the tag hanging from Franklin’s neck identifying him as an employee of the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services (DCS).

“You have the power to take my kids away,” she told him. Tagging along on the scheduled follow-up visit with Franklin was DCS Commissioner Jim Henry, who stood to the side listening silently to the verbal  exchange between his Child Protective Services investigator and a mother suspected of child abuse.

The mother had been convicted of selling drugs, was incarcerated in the Hawkins County Jail for nine months and then was set free earlier this year.

Last March, said Franklin, she regained custody of her 7-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter.

Then her little boy showed up at school with a scratch under one eye.

“He had expressed to a teacher that momma got mad,” Franklin said of the son. “It turned out when we went to talk to the little boy, he did have a history with mom. ... We went out there because of the history, and we asked her to submit to a drug screen, and she gave us confirmation that she is on Suboxone (a narcotic medication for treatment of opioid dependence and available by prescription), and she was clean for everything else.

“When we interviewed the child, he didn’t disclose to us that mom did that. In fact, he talked about how he was building this tower. He got mad at his sister for knocking his little toy tower down. Subsequently, mom did get on to him. ... It was one of those (tower) pieces that scratched his eye.”

The challenges at DCS

Franklin’s and Henry’s visit to Sneedville was a snapshot of what happens inside what might be state government’s most troubled agency. DCS conducted 60,000 investigations last year and is on track to do 72,000 probes this year, said Henry.

“There are 8,500 kids in state custody now, and it used to be 6,900,” said Henry, who has vowed to enact culture change within the agency since his appointment last February. His predecessor, Kate O’Day, stepped down amid an investigation into child deaths under the agency’s watch.

Henry has pledged DCS will do more thorough child death reviews, put more emphasis on child safety and do cross-training with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to help DCS workers spot things like drug use in the home.

“The places where there are more pain clinics is where you’ve got the biggest problems,” Henry noted. “East Tennessee and particularly upper East Tennessee is a hotbed with the drug issue. There are more cases here than anywhere in the state. ... Some kids are born addicted. ... We want to keep kids safe. That is our number one priority.”

This year, the highest rates of Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome — also known as drug-dependent newborns — have occurred in Sullivan County and Northeast Tennessee, according to the state Department of Health (DOH). More than 60 percent of those cases were caused by either prescribed substances or a mix of prescribed and non-prescribed substances, DOH noted.

The appointment

Franklin’s and Henry’s trip to an isolated section of Hancock County to visit the mother suspected of child abuse began in Rogersville, where Franklin is based. Franklin drives his own vehicle, not a state car, to get to his appointments. What he called “the windshield time” is most challenging during winter. Franklin, who has a divinity degree as well as a master’s degree in psychology, has his own iPad to type in field information in real time. He is not allowed to carry a firearm.

The investigation referrals, Franklin stressed, can be a hit-ormiss situation.

“A lot of these cases come in through the school in a way they asked the question as much as what really happened,” Franklin said. “I’ve had cases where people make assumptions. They see something and ask ‘What happened to you?’ They ask ‘Did dad do this to you or did mom do this to you?’ A lot of times the kids will tell them what they want to hear.”

Upon arriving in Sneedville, Franklin and Henry stopped at the local elementary school for an informal interview with the mother’s children. Franklin asked them how they are punished and who they want to live with. While the boy’s scratched eye had cleared up, the 5-year-old girl had a long visible scratch on her forearm.

Afterward, a trek was made up a long gravel road to the kids’ and mother’s shabby home. The mother lives with her boyfriend, who was at work, Franklin said.

Stacked on the front porch were lumps of coal and pieces of wood to be stoked inside a living room furnace when winter comes.

Franklin asked the mother to submit to a drug screen upon arriving. She was unable to deliver a urine specimen, but did give Franklin a mouth swab.

The conversation between the mother and Franklin was testy, but no one lost their temper. She invited Franklin and Henry in to inspect the home’s living conditions.

This was Henry’s fourth field trip in the state to see what his caseworkers and investigators experience, and to see parenting at a questionable level.

“The idea of them losing their kids, when they are sober, is huge,” Henry said of the mother’s reaction to the visit.

The drug screen, said Franklin, would determine whether he had a “P-1” situation — with DCS having to take action in the home within 24 hours.

Franklin also disclosed there had been problems with the mother not getting her kids off the school bus at the end of the day. Her cell phone had to be rigged for a notification to happen at 3:15 p.m. so she could meet the bus, Franklin added.

A DNA sample also had to be taken from the daughter to see if her biological father is in prison, said Franklin.

At the end of the visit, Franklin said the mother passed the drug test and had a legal subscription for Suboxone and a drug similar to Valium.

“She got A’s today,” said Franklin, who indicated the mother’s case is closed for now. “The living conditions were not ideal, but I did not see any safety concerns. They had food in the home and a source of heat when it comes. ... Over here, there are still a lot of homes that don’t have plumbing.”

Franklin also pointed out there are people living in rented storage buildings in Hancock County, which faces double-digit unemployment.

“This is a most isolated and most impoverished place,” Franklin said of Hancock County. “There is so much a divide between the haves and have-nots.”

Still, Henry was encouraged by what he saw in Franklin.

“The best thing is the commitment of the people who work here (at DCS),” Henry said. “I think most people would be impressed. ... This is the toughest job in state government and no one really appreciates it unless you are involved in it.”

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