Thursday, February 11, 2010

Ex-Workers: kids' safety not focus of DCS (Nashville, Tennessee)

In Tennessee, at least 8 kids have died in the past year AFTER Children's Services got involved.

Children's Services gave dad MITCHELL STONE custody of two children, ages 3 and 1, despite his mental disabilities. And despite that fact that one of the kids wasn't even "his." The children later died in a fire after they were left at home alone.

We've posted before on custodial dad CHRISTOPHER MILBURN, who murdered his 15-year-old daughter after she reported abuse. Children's Services was apparently stupid enough to place her in a home just three doors away--at the father's suggestion!

Ex-Workers: Kids' Safety Not Focus Of DCS
Department Of Children's Safety Defends Policies
Reported By Dennis Ferrier

POSTED: 4:22 pm CST February 9, 2010
UPDATED: 5:09 pm CST February 10, 2010

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- In the past year, at least eight children have died after the Department of Children's Services got involved in the cases.

Former DCS workers have come forward, claiming Tennessee's child welfare system is obsessed with quotas and mandates rather than the safety of children. But the head of DCS said children have never been safer.

Brian Bagby was a Department of Children's Services case manager in Coffee County. If there were an allegation of children at risk of harm -- physical abuse, drugs in the home, sex abuse, malnutrition, hygiene -- he would go in, assess and make recommendations.

Bagby said it's a job with priceless rewards.

"I do know that some children were severely neglected or abused, you see them a year later, and they are totally different," he said.

But Bagby quit DCS two months ago because he believes the department is more concerned with looking good than looking out for children.

"What about the kids, you know? We're not even focusing on the kids," said Bagby. "We're focusing on how to look good, how to make data look good."

Bagby isn't alone. Other case managers -- three former and current managers -- have talked to Channel 4 News about problems with DCS mandates.

Similar stories were heard from former juvenile court judge April Meldrum. Until recently, she heard hundreds of child welfare cases involving DCS, but the Anderson County judge resigned from the bench last month because she said DCS appeared unwilling to do what it takes to keep children safe.

"As you're faced with making a decision every day of deciding whether or not to remove a child from their parents, you would like to know that the agency to whom you're giving the child would do a better job," said Meldrum. "It's an untenable position to be in if you don't have that faith, and I no longer have that faith."

All DCS case workers are under federal order that each of them has no more than 20 children in state custody. That puts immense pressure on caseworkers to find a family member or a friend to take the kids.

Sometimes family members are not fit to take care of children.

"I have been told to place kids with people who are felons," said Bagby. "There has been several instances where children have been taken across state lines."

Channel 4 asked DCS Commissioner Viola Miller about these practices.

"You're going to have to give me specifics, and then I will be glad to look up those cases, because we are required, our folks are required to go to that home, walk through it, make sure there is plenty of food, no observable problems, and we run a criminal background check right then, at that moment, before we leave that child there," said Miller.

But the problem is secrecy. Even now, after quitting and going public, case manager Bagby is still limited and won't talk about specific cases.

DCS is a world full of secrets, even when children die.

Kayndace, 3, and Kelly, 1, were taken away from their mom, but they didn't go into state custody. They were taken to a relative: Kayndace's father, Mitchell Stone.

Stone was not related in any way to the 1-year-old. Nevertheless, he was given both children, even though Stone -- by his own family's admission and school records -- suffers from retardation.

"He's got a mind of a 2-year-old," said Stone's mother.

Mitchell Stone and his wife, Rose, left the children home alone in their McMinnville apartment. A fire started, and the children died.

Now the Stones are charged with murder. Their attorney said DCS is at least equally responsible.

"If someone would just come forward and say that, say, 'Maybe we screwed up with placing a child in this home,'" said the Stones' attorney, Larry Bryant.

At this point, DCS is not admitting involvement. But the department apparently was involved, because dozens of DCS documents were sealed by the courts in the case, and a DCS spokesman actually defended the caseworkers in news reports in July.

Former juvenile judge Meldrum said the problem is the state is too quick to find a relative and too loose in defining a relative.

"There have been many occasions where maybe the parents just know of someone that might be able to take their child, and because they're so concerned about the prospect of state custody, sometimes those children end up placed with strangers recommended by the very parents that lost custody in the first place," said Meldrum.

In August in Dyersburg, a man named Christopher Milburn lost custody of his 15-year-old daughter after she claimed abuse. The dad suggested she be placed with his friend on the same street.

Three days later, he went into his friend's house and killed his daughter, his friend and himself. Stevie Milburn, the soccer-loving teen who called on her own dad, died.

"Isn't that the saddest?" said Miller.

Why did DCS place a child with a non-relative three doors away from an abusive father?

"This was a good placement. This was a good choice," said Miller. "Nobody who knew this man could ever, ever imagine he would do this."

Bagby said terrible relative or friend placements make the news only when they end in death and that the majority of kids who move from bad parent to bad relative suffer in silence.

DCS said it remains committed to placing kids with people in their lives.

"The best practice is to find someone who already loves and cares about this child," said Miller. "Our option is stranger care. It's terribly traumatic to children. That's just the right thing to do."