DCS commissioner discusses agency improvements - WSMV Channel 4

DCS commissioner discusses agency improvements

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NASHVILLE, TN (WSMV-AP) -

The interim commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Children's Services says he's taken steps to address problems that have plagued the embattled agency.

Jim Henry and key members of his staff spoke before the House Government Operations Committee on Tuesday and discussed improvements made since Henry stepped in about a month ago.

The agency has come under intense criticism because of the number of children who have died while in its custody, and its new leader and his staff answered lawmakers' questions for about three hours.

More than 200 Tennessee children have lost their lives or nearly died since 2009 after having some contact with the agency. The exact number isn't clear.

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.

"Can you imagine that 60 percent of the kids we took in in Knoxville last month were drug babies? Can you imagine that 5 out of the 6 deaths we've had in custody this year have been babies from natural causes? We'll have autopsies done and see what the problem is," Henry said.

He said a death review process has also been established and cases are reviewed monthly.

Henry has also sent office workers into the field as job shadows, where they've encountered bed bugs, vicious dogs and terrible parents.

"I had to handle crying, screaming babies with cursing parents, and the amount of grace these people show under pressure in these really stressful situations blew me away - and their compassion and concern for the children they deal with so they can have somewhat of a normal lifestyle," said Ann Buckle, with the improvement office.

Henry's approach to the DCS situation changed the tone of the entire meeting.

"It was going to be a reckoning, and now I think it's changed a whole lot. I think it's changed to a solution-based hearing as opposed to a reckoning," said State Rep. Mike Turner, D-Nashville. "I think we've got a lot of mistakes and a lot of employees working too hard for low pay. I have more hopes this time. And I think, Mr. Henry, Tennessee has a good man in you."

Henry has been clear he believes DCS needs more money - he estimates at least $15 million more - to protect the children of Tennessee.

That money would go toward new training, more workers and better equipment.

Copyright 2013 WSMV (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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