TRI-CITIES, Tenn. (WJHL)- As of Tuesday morning, 9,133 children were in the custody of the Department of Children’s Services.
“The need for foster homes is critical,” said Carren Broadnax, the resource linkage coordinator for DCS. “As of today, we currently have 9,133 children in custody across the state. You have children that lost parents during the pandemic and a number of other life situations that were exacerbated beyond measure.”
The issue has been so bad that children have had to sleep in the DCS offices overnight.
“It’s not something that we set out to do to ever have a kid sleep in the office. It was not our intent ever, but certainly our problem and we’re working to address it,” Broadnax explained. “There is always a staff person that is with them if they have to stay in the office. We ensure that they have food and meals and that they’re needs are taken care of. In some of the offices there may be televisions and game systems and things of that nature just to kind of help the time pass until we can get them in a placement option.”
The pandemic exacerbated the problems.
“We had foster homes that had lost jobs, they lost spouses. COVID impacted families across the board. That being said, I think we just got lost somewhere in the conversation,” said Broadnax. “Just in the 15 county area of East Tennessee, we had 411 homes that closed in good standing between DCS and contract homes at the year-end of 2021.”
The issue comes as Isaiah 1:17 Houses, the temporary placement homes across the region, are also at max capacity, sometimes forcing children to go to different counties.
“We like to be able to try to keep those kids if at all possible in areas that are comfortable and familiar to them,” she said. “Particularly if we’re able to stay in the same school, we would like to be able to do that.”
The issue of children sleeping on air mattresses at DCS offices was highlighted by News Channel 11 in Greene County earlier this month. After the story aired, we found out, it was happening across the region.
“At the height of the placement crisis they were having children stay at the DCS office here in Hawkins County and case managers were staying here with them and away from their families,” said Hawkins County juvenile court judge Daniel Boyd. “When children come into custody the department is having a hard time finding placement for the children which usually means that case managers are having to sit with children at some point in time at various locations.”
The pandemic has also caused a backlog in the system.
“We’re seeing placements denying children because of behaviors. Either the pandemic has brought behaviors more to the front or they’ve been unaddressed and services haven’t been provided during the pandemic for various reasons,” Boyd explained.
Along with behavior issues, Boyd says the main reason children are taken from homes in Hawkins County, like Greene County, is due to drugs.
“It’s a traumatic experience good or bad – children being taken away from their parents or family members and being someplace strange,” said Boyd. “So, you want to make that transition and that removal as smooth as possible.”
The Isaiah 1:17 House for Hawkins County is just in the awareness phase and might not be ready for quite some time.
“It’s a respite and a placement for children that are awaiting placement. It gives them home instead of sitting in a cubicle and sleeping on an air mattress,” he shared. “It gives them a bed, it gives them a tv, good food, warm showers, etc.”
Tennessee lawmakers are aware of the problem, putting just under $50 million in the next budget toward children’s services.
“They want the kids to have exactly what the court feels they need,” said state Rep. David Hawk (R) of Greene County. “I’m frustrated. The judges are frustrated. I know that it’s a problem that has popped up across the state. It never starts immediately but having the promise of these dollars out there will hopefully spur families and folks to come into DCS employment very soon.”
About $5 million is going to Children’s Advocacy Centers. $9.7 million is going to DCS to increase wages for case workers and fund more positions. The bulk of the money- $33.8 million- is going to fund kinship placements. That’s where aunts, uncles, grandparents, and other relatives of the children going into custody can get the children placed with them.
“There are some kinship placements who throw their hands up and say, ‘I can’t do it. I can’t afford to bring another child into the house,’ and they’ve had to turn loved ones away, blood relatives away because they couldn’t afford it so we’re trying to make the answer easier to say ‘yes’ on every occasion for that blood relative to take that child in,” Hawk said. “It’s important to keep a continuum of care for the children that they don’t lose their healthcare services, they don’t lose their childcare services. They don’t lose whatever services they may be receiving in school just because they’ve gone from a parent who’s not doing well financially to a parent who may be doing better financially.”
Another relief that can hopefully help families on the front end is $25 million to Northeast Tennessee from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.
“We’ve got a substantial investment there we’re making in the region as well to ensure that families number one are on a good footing to start with to try to avoid any of these abuses in the future,” Hawk said.
While putting money toward the problem is helpful, the biggest need is for foster care families and mentors, of all shapes, sizes, and walks of life.
You can find more information on how you can help at TNFostersHope.tn.gov.