NASHVILLE – The Tennessee Department of Children's Services requested more than $8 million on Thursday to hire new staff and make other improvements to the agency that has been highly scrutinized over children's deaths.
Commissioner Kate O'Day and her staff met with Gov. Bill Haslam during budget hearings for fiscal year 2013-14. Haslam has asked state departments to develop plans for a 5 percent spending cut as a fallback.
O'Day said part of the money would be used to hire more case workers and attorneys, grant pay increases and make adjustments in caring for foster children.
"We can always make improvements," said O'Day, who was appointed last year by the Republican governor.
Despite improving state revenues, Haslam said the state is still trying to be fiscally responsible. He added he was unsure how much of the $8.6 million request he could grant, but said "we understand the need, and appreciate the commitment to get it right."
In September, the agency released information that showed 31 children it had investigated died during the first half of 2012. At the time, Haslam had called the deaths distressing, but didn't see any immediate evidence of wrongdoing by DCS.
O'Day told the governor on Thursday that the agency is undergoing an extensive self-analysis to see how such deaths can be prevented, as well as improving a relatively new computer system that has prevented the collection of DCS data in over 20 areas of court-ordered reform.
She said part of the problem was not having people with the right technical skills to fix the system's problems.
"We need to be able to extract data in a way that's usable for us," O'Day told reporters after the hearing. "We are on track to do that at the end of this calendar year, and on into early next calendar year."
DCS was created about 16 years ago through the merger of services that had been scattered among several departments.
It was hoped that the agency would improve coordination of services for children, but almost from the beginning it has had management problems. In 2000, a lawsuit was filed accusing the department of failing to adequately care for foster children.
The suit was settled the following year, but the department has made minimal progress since then in meeting requirements of the consent decree.
In 2003, there was an investigation into the deaths of five children in Memphis who were either in state custody or under DCS oversight. In each case, DCS response was weak and its effectiveness questionable, according to a report by the state comptroller's office.
State Rep. Sherry Jones, as well as The Tennessean newspaper, had requested the information that the agency eventually released in September. Jones said Thursday that she's pleased the agency wants to hire more case workers, but expressed exasperation with the progress in fixing the computer system.
"If it's not working like it's supposed to by the end of the year, they need to cut their losses and move on to something else," said the Nashville Democrat.
Critics want O'Day to be replaced. But Rep. John Deberry, who cast the deciding vote that got legislation out of a House committee to form DCS in 1996, said in a letter last month to Haslam and Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell that O'Day shouldn't be blamed for deeply rooted problems that she inherited.
"In my opinion, Commissioner O'Day should be given a reasonable amount of time to assimilate a plan of action that will combat these ongoing issues involving the children of Tennessee," the Memphis Democrat wrote in the letter, obtained by The Associated Press.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.