DCS’ new policy is to do nothing

The Tennessee Department of Children’s Services needs better legal advice than it is currently getting.

DCS is intended to be the front line of protection for kids when their home may no longer be a safe place because of abuse or neglect. Its caseworkers are tasked with assessing living conditions, and if there is an imminent threat to children, to remove them from the home and file a subsequent court order.

Obviously, such removals can lead to conflict, as in an incident in Hickman County in 2008 that sparked a lawsuit that reached the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. The court’s subsequent instruction to DCS — that caseworkers are under the same Fourth Amendment restrictions regarding search and seizure as police — reasonably tempers caseworkers’ authority.

What is inexplicable is DCS’ determination, or that of its chief legal counsel, Doug Dimond, to adopt the extreme policy that caseworkers no longer can remove children from homes without an in-person court hearing first.

Hearings take days to set up at best, while the child remains in a potentially unsafe situation. But temporary emergency orders could be obtained by DCS caseworkers or their supervisors from juvenile court officials within hours, perhaps minutes, and still satisfy the appellate court’s constraints.

After the appellate ruling, juvenile courts across Tennessee and the other Sixth Circuit states set up 24/7 systems to respond quickly when emergency orders are needed. Tennessee court officials furnished DCS cellphone numbers and on-call staff, able to authorize emergency orders by phone or email.

DCS said no thanks.

When people are given every opportunity to do their job properly and still refuse, it may signal they have forgotten what matters most. If DCS caseworkers are being told to worry about lawsuits first and children second, there is a serious problem, exceeding past concerns about overwhelming caseloads, concealing errors or unworkable computer systems.

If the Department of Children’s Services has institutionalized the very neglect it is supposed to prevent, why should its employees even report for work?

-The Tennessean

Posted on Wednesday, November 6, 2013 at 11:13 am