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Tennessee audit: Children's Services agency failed to protect vulnerable kids

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP-KIMBERLEE KRUESI) — Tennessee has repeatedly failed to thoroughly investigate sexual abuse allegations in the facilities that house the state’s most vulnerable children, according to a sweeping audit released Tuesday that outlines multiple deficiencies inside the Department of Children’s Services.

The 164-page report comes as state agency officials say they’ve been plagued by crippling staffing and placement shortages, sparking outcries from Democratic lawmakers and child safety advocates alarmed at the challenges in the department, including children who have had to sleep in administrative state offices.

The report — conducted by the state comptroller’s office — underscored those reports of high-employee turnover over the past two years, as well as challenges to find proper temporary housing. Yet it also stressed that the state’s failure to investigate abuse and neglect allegations contributed to putting children’s health, safety and well-being at risk.

Auditors say they reviewed 211 sexual abuse and harassment incidents reported inside residential facilities in 2021 and found 34 cases in which officials did not investigate the allegations. Auditors also say officials did not investigate reports of consensual sexual activity between children — noting that while the reports may not have constituted abuse, they may indicate a lack of supervision at the facilities.

“If DCS does not address all potential sexual abuse, sexual harassment, and lack of supervision allegations within all facilities, then they cannot be sure they are providing a safe, humane, and secure environment for all children under DCS’s care, especially those that live in non-juvenile justice focused facility settings,” the audit stated.

A spokesperson for the Department of Children’s Services did not immediately respond to a request for comment. However, the audit reported that department officials largely concurred with the comptroller’s findings. Officials maintained that all sexual abuse allegations were investigated “appropriately” but the department confirmed it has since changed its policies to follow up on cases referred to law enforcement.

The department also noted that many other states are also facing similar challenges.

“The issues are not just germane to Tennessee; all states are faced with children with increased needs, low staffing and fewer placement options,” the department’s said in the audit.

Republican Gov. Bill Lee so far has not called for a special legislative session to address the crisis inside the children’s services agency. Instead, he has maintained that the state is working on solutions and that he plans on including a funding boost when he unveils his 2023-24 spending plan in January.

“We’re working on it right now,” Lee recently told reporters. “We’re working on how to fix this problem every day.”

Earlier this year, Commissioner Margie Quinn described the turnover rate inside her department as “horrific” while requesting more money to increase staff salaries. According to the audit, DCS’s statewide turnover rate was 56%. In Davidson County, which encompasses Nashville, the turnover was “alarmingly higher at 127%,” per the audit.

Quinn, who took over the department in July, is asking for an additional $15.8 million to boost case manager wages in the upcoming fiscal year and a separate $30 million to increase the amount of funding available to help place children in temporary housing.

On average, DCS is in custody of more than 8,000 children, often who are the victims of neglect and abuse.