NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — Tennessee lawmakers kicked off the annual legislative session this week in Nashville.
Ahead of the 113th General Assembly, WKRN News 2’s Chris O’Brien sat down with leaders on both sides of the aisle to talk about all the issues and what they might look like in bill form.
Separate interviews were conducted with Senate Minority Leader Raumesh Akbari (D-Memphis), Lt. Gov. Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge), Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville), House Majority Leader William Lamberth (R-Portland), Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson (R-Franklin) and Democratic House Caucus Chairman John Ray Clemmons (D-Nashville).
Not every interviewee was asked about every subject, but there was considerable crossover with most of them.
Department of Children’s Services
The issues facing the Department of Children’s Services in Tennessee have been well-chronicled. A state audit released in December 2022 used the word “crisis” 17 times and reports that children in DCS custody have been left in danger.
Below you’ll find what lawmakers said ahead of the session when asked about their thoughts on Tennessee’s DCS.
Sexton: “State government always has a pay issue, so we have to fix that as a state government. You can’t underpay people who are in that job when they can go to the private market and make a lot more, so you have to bring your salaries up. We have to do a better job of recruiting and retaining individuals, as well.”
“There’s one decision three or four years ago, made by a former commissioner, where they removed placement services out of the local offices and centralized it in Nashville. From what I understand from the local areas, is it that was the point that everything started falling apart. So, I think we need to go back, re-evaluate that decision and allow the locals to make that decision.”
Clemmons: “This has to be a priority for the state government. It is nothing short of a fundamental failure of leadership at the highest level. DCS is run out of the governor’s administration, the budget is passed and proposed by the governor every single year. Governor Bill Lee has failed those children.”
“When children are sleeping on the floor of a state office building because our governor is too lazy to do his job or put the appropriate resources in place to make sure those children are cared for or they’re not housed in a hospital, that is a fundamental failure of leadership.”
“We need to make sure we’re getting the resources to that department to make sure they’re carrying out this mission. There’s still a lot we don’t know, like how did we get here? Clearly a failure of leadership.”
“When you fundamentally undercut state employees and show a level of disrespect that Governor [Bill] Haslam and Bill Lee have shown state employees, yeah, you’re going to have a hard time recruiting individuals for the state.”
McNally: “I think it’s probably to get more money in the budget but to do it judiciously, so that you hire the right people and the people that are out there doing the interviews and everything are paid properly. We’ve seen a lot more of these cases, particularly with the COVID epidemic, and that’s driven a number of the problems.”
Akbari: “I think that DCS needs a complete overhaul and that starts with funding. If they are so severely understaffed you have children who are abused and neglected, who need a safe place, and they’re in a situation that’s not any better. They’re sleeping in office buildings, they’re being unfairly put in hospitals, they themselves can be victims of sexual abuse. Something has to be done and has to be done right away.”
“I think part of that is to pay our social workers more, so that we can keep them. I mean, the amount of vacancies we have is untenable. You could never even imagine that. DCS was already running on fumes, and now I feel like there’s nothing left in the tank.”
Johnson: “We clearly have a problem in our Department of Children’s Services, and it needs to be addressed. I think more money is part of the solution. We have an unusual amount of openings in terms of the caseworkers and the people who are handling these cases.
And let me just say, it’s some of the most difficult work you do in state government, and I really applaud the people who dedicate themselves and their careers to helping these children who are in very unfortunate circumstances.
We just have to give them the resources. If that’s more money, certainly more positions if necessary, if we need to look at our foster care laws. That’s something I’m hearing a lot about from constituents, in terms of the ability of the people who are capable and willing to be a foster parent. We should streamline that process. I’m confident between the governor’s office and the General Assembly, it will be one of our top priorities this session.”
Lamberth: “The biggest issue we have had with DCS and continue to have is we need more foster families. We need more families that will take children in that are coming from broken homes, that are coming from disastrous circumstances. These children need and deserve our love, as Tennesseans. We’ve now got more than more than 7 million Tennesseans in our state. Surely, we have more families that can step up and help us help these children.”
“Government is not the solution to all of our problems. This is one of those where we can have the best DCS in the country and have the most resources allocated toward it, and if we don’t have enough foster families, it still won’t work. So, we need you, we need every single family in this state that’s even thinking about fostering children to do so.”
“We continue this year to make that foster process simpler, that there’s the resources there for foster families and to make adoption the easiest, simplest, smoothest process of anywhere in the country.”
Everyone agrees on one thing – DCS needs to be fixed. The solution, according to just about every lawmaker, is more funding. But when that funding should come is where they differ. Democrats have signaled they want Lee to pull from the state Rainy Day fund, but as recent as November 2022, the governor explained why he wasn’t planning on dipping into the fund.