by: April Thompson
MEMPHIS, Tenn. — After problems plagued the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services, is it finally on the right road to protections young children, especially many here in the Mid-South?
A recent news conference by the governor and DCS commissioner seems to indicate that. But children in DCS custody have been calling WREG, asking for help — and they say the agency has a lot more work to do.
Earlier this month, Gov. Bill Lee and Department of Children Services Commissioner Margie Quinn were in Memphis to show three new apartments where kids, who before had to stay in office buildings, can now be housed as they move through the system.
“This is a start,” Lee said.
The day before that announcement, WREG talked to teenagers who had moved out of DCS custody. Their adult guardians gave us permission to speak with them, but we are not showing their faces.
The teens say having to stay in an office building where they couldn’t shower or get a meal was bad enough — but some actual foster homes were even worse.
“Every home I have been in, it’ll be bedbugs,” one child said. “There are other males I have lived with, a lot of males, and they have either tried to put their hands on me.”
A 16-year-old sent us pictures of the foster home she was put in, with what she says were unsanitary conditions. She had been in foster care after her mom died, but just recently was released to the custody of her aunt.
Another 17-year-old who was in DCS custody for a year, also says she witnessed violence: Her foster father hit his biological son, who is just 8 years old.
“He started yelling from the room and he came in and he was just like, ‘What the freak are you doing, what the freak are you doing?’” the girl recalled. “He dragged him in the kitchen, I guess so I wouldn’t see. And he started beating him with a metal stick and like punching him with his hands. And I can still see because I mean the kitchen is right here.”
She even recorded it to share with her DCS caseworkers.
“I knew that I had to get evidence because DCS is not going to believe you. They are always gonna believe the adult over you,” she said. “I told DCS, I was like, ‘Why don’t you just help this little boy?’ ‘Oh, don’t mind your business, just worry about you.’”
She said the caseworkers didn’t do anything, leaving her and two other foster kids in the home.
And it’s not just the children. A foster mother of almost six years spoke with us. concerned how some children were being handled.
“I’ve had maybe a total of 17 children over time, and I just loved the children,” she said.
She says often she was asked to house children who needed a greater level of care than her home could provide.
“I’m a level one home. But because of the need for children to be in homes and there were no homes available for the level three and four children, I accepted them,” she said.
She says recently, when she took in teenagers, she said DCS worker handed over prescription medication to one teen — medicine that should have been dispensed by an adult.
“I raised question I didn’t understand why the child had so much medication. And it was in the child’s care. I just asked the question. It escalated up to the supervisors,” she said.
She says when she questioned DCS workers about it, the three children she was fostering were removed from her home.
She says someone must be a voice for the children.
“All the children are not being dishonest as to what’s happened,” she said. “I think they need a listening ear.”
DCS says it is looking into the claims brought forth by these teens. WREG asked DCS about foster home inspections and how often they are following up and visiting after complaints are made.
“If we have a case of abuse within a foster home or unsanitary conditions in a foster home, those need to be reported through the DCS hotline and we would want to investigate those immediately,” said DCS Commissioner Margie Quinn.
Statewide this year, there have been 21 allegations made against foster parents about abuse or mistreatment. There are also allegations about the living conditions inside two homes.
This year state lawmakers reacted to recent bad publicity. The governor did too, increasing funding for DCS.
The agency has now hired 255 more workers. They have close to 5,000 foster families with more than 1,000 in training.
They say there is an assessment to determine the most appropriate level of children a family can serve. They are steps toward improvements these teens are hungry for, both figuratively and literally.
“They would eat all of the food and wouldn’t leave any for me,” a teen recalled. “So I went in the room and I was like, ‘Did you guys leave any for me? I mean, what am I going to eat?’ And she was like, ‘I don’t know.’”
We asked DCS for answers about the claims made by former foster children who spoke with us. Officials say they are looking into the allegations.