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Miller: 'Bunker mentality' exists at DCS
Jan 28, 2005 12:00 am
State Department of Children's Services Commissioner Viola Miller has acknowledged a "bunker mentality" exists in some field offices of the oft-criticized agency, which she says is becoming "more accountable."
Miller's comments came during a visit Wednesday to Lebanon where DCS has faced criticism over its handling of several recent high-profile child abuse and neglect cases. As a result Miller recently installed a team of DCS officials to oversee the work of the local office, the first such move she has made since taking over the agency a year ago.
The DCS commissioner said the agency has endured a myriad of statewide problems which are now being addressed, citing staffing shortages, low salaries, little specialized training for workers and even a lack of a comprehensive database of its work.
As recently as a year ago, Miller said DCS officials relied on "hand counts" to track most of its statewide caseload though an updated system is now being put into place.
"With more and better data, we'll be able to do more and hold ourselves accountable," she said. "We've simply got to be able to track caseloads in order to do the kind of work the public expects out of us."
Miller also indicated she may be open to loosening some of the agency's confidentiality restrictions as a way to gain more public confidence in DCS.
"I think it's in everybody's best interest to get as much information out there as we can," she said.
She said while holding a similar post in Kentucky, she was able to ease confidentiality restrictions in cases resulting in a child's death. She indicated she would like to see the same thing happen in Tennessee.
"When a child becomes a fatality, at that point who are you protecting?" she asked.
Miller said there is "no doubt in my mind" the Wilson County DCS office – which serves neighboring Trousdale County – was in "crisis" at the time she ordered the increased oversight.
Since the decision two weeks ago, Miller said officials have found no "unique" problems in the local office.
Instead, local case workers have been hampered by the same problems facing their co-workers across the state, she said. Staffing woes, less than adequate salaries and a lack of physical resources have resulted in a "bunker mentality" in some DCS field offices including the Wilson County arm of the agency, Miller said.
"At times they are under such pressure it's almost as if they become inert, unable to respond," Miller said.
In the local office, officials now overseeing the operation discovered a sense of futility sometimes kept case workers from seeking badly needed resources, she said.
"There were things they needed desperately in this office, and they never asked for them," Miller said. "It becomes like a bunker mentality. They knew they had resource needs, but they were making the assumption they would never get them, so they would never ask."
Despite criticism and increased oversight, Miller said Wilson Countians "should not paint that entire office with a single brush."
"There are good people doing good work in that office every day," she said.
The DCS chief said an analysis of the agency's work across the state completed only days ago showed Wilson County "probably in the top one-third as far as overall performance," though she readily conceded "the quality of the work was not what any of us would want it to be in certain cases."
"I think you can look forward to having an office here that you will be proud of," Miller said, adding Wilson County won't be the only local DCS office to endure increased oversight in the months ahead.
"It won't be the last time we do it, I can promise you that," the DCS Commissioner said. "The leadership team is not sent in to beat up the staff. We start with the assumption that the staff want to do good work, because why would they do it for any other reason? Then we try to find way to help them meet their goals and that's what we're doing here."
In two recent high-profile cases Lebanon police officials voiced criticism of some DCS efforts. In one of those an internal investigation found two local case workers failed to adequately respond to complaints involving a 19-month-old who ate crack cocaine off his mother's floor.
When asked about the agency's relationship with local authorities Miller said, "It's not nearly as good as it needs to be. Repair work needs to be done and repair work has been started."
Miller said a strong relationship with local authorities is critical to improving DCS operations in the future.
"Public child welfare can't do its work … without a good working relationship with law enforcement," she said.
Problems plaguing the local DCS office have even stretched beyond Wilson County in recent days with a local case worker recently arrested by police in a puzzling incident at a Smyrna hospital.
The employee, Christopher Lott, 28, was arrested along with a former DCS employee assigned to Wilson County when authorities said they attempted to gain access to a hospitalized child by falsely claiming to be on official DCS business.
Miller said the internal investigation into Lott is continuing and declined comment until the probe is complete.
Local scrutiny first focused on DCS when a 15-year-old was found badly malnourished. Lebanon police arrested his parents on abuse and neglect charges for allegedly keeping the teen locked and chained inside their home as his weight dwindled to a mere 50 pounds.
DCS officials strongly defended their actions in that case, saying workers investigated claims the youth had been abused or neglected, but could find no evidence to substantiate the allegations.
That was followed by the arrest of a Lebanon woman for failing to seek immediate medical treatment after allegedly watching her child eat crack cocaine, resulting in an internal probe of two local DCS workers. One worker was reprimanded at the investigation's end. The other died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound while the probe was in progress, officials said.
Some questions were also raised about a DCS investigation of a family reportedly raising kids in a "roach infested" home. One child was initially believed to be deaf because the insects had become so deeply embedded in his ears, according to police, who said DCS had apparently ordered conditions in the home improved during an earlier visit.
However, officers said the ordered repairs by DCS seemed to have little impact with the family complying only briefly with the agency's directives. The child along with two siblings was later placed in foster care according to a police detective who said he was "satisfied" with DCS efforts in that case.
Senior Staff Writer Brooks Franklin can be reached at 444-3952 ext. 14 or by e-mail at email@example.com.