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The Investigators: Children’s Service’s commissioner says kids were not left in unsafe environments in response to state report

Updated: Dec. 9, 2020 at 10:38 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Children who are abused, neglected, and delinquent in Tennessee are supposed to be helped by the Department of Children’s Services.

The department was created in 1996 to “provide services to those children who are unruly, delinquent, dependent and neglected.”

A state comptroller’s report, released Tuesday afternoon, shows the agency found multiple issues within DCS that put Tennessee’s most vulnerable children at risk.

DCS Commissioner Jennifer Nichols answered questions and heard comments about the report Wednesday morning in a legislative hearing.

Nichols is a former Shelby County prosecutor and was put in charge of DCS in January 2019.

“Public children welfare is hard,” said Nichols at the hearing. “This calendar year, DCS has served 123,000 children in some way.”

Some of those children are housed at Wilder Youth Development Center, where escapes and uprisings have made headlines over the years.

The high-security facility is about 45 minutes northeast of Memphis and houses male youth who have committed serious crimes.

One boy is still missing after five youth ran out of the facility last month.

Last September, dozens of teens were charged after an hours-long disturbance.

The report shows DCS could not prove it’s kept up with proper staffing ratios at Wilder.

“It doesn’t mean that we were out of ratio the fact they didn’t do the report but they have to do the report,” said Nichols.

Documentation at DCS can be minimal or non-existent, according to the report’s findings.

It shows when investigating the most serious allegations of child abuse, the proper documentation wasn’t in place.

“This finding relates only to procedural issues. It is not indicative of a child being left in an unsafe place,” she said.

The report also states DCS did not perform all necessary background checks on its employees or volunteers “which potentially jeopardize the safety of children,” the report stated.

Nichols said human resources is now reviewing the personnel files of its more than 3,500 employees.

“They have already completed the personnel files of every single staff member at Wilder. We thought that population was particularly important,” she said.

We had specific questions for Commissioner Nichols so we scheduled an interview with her.

Thirty minutes beforehand, the interview was canceled, and were told the Commissioner wasn’t available to speak with us.

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