Tennessee DCS commissioner tells lawmakers lack of staff contributes to juvenile housing shortage

Sign at the entrance to the John S. Wilder Youth Development Center. (Photo: Google Earth)

by Anita Wadhwani, Tennessee Lookout

Tennessee lawmakers on Tuesday continued their review of the Department of Children’s Services, where resources have been stretched to the breaking point, and children are sleeping on office floors or languishing in juvenile detention centers because there are no other places to put them.

“We are kind of full up on our bed situation, so we are hopeful the committee will make recommendations to help us alleviate the capacity and available bed situation,” DCS Commissioner Margie Quin, on the job for a little less than two months, told the bipartisan panel of lawmakers. Margie Williams Quin, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services. (Photo: LinkedIn)

The panel, formally known as the Joint Ad Hoc Committee on Juvenile Justice, is charged with weighing legislative and budget changes to programs serving children who have been deemed delinquent by a judge. The panel is not examining the crisis in care for kids who have been taken into state custody after being abused or neglected.

A recent investigation by The Tennessean newspaper found more than 600 children taken into custody after allegations of abuse or neglect had spent multiple nights sleeping on office floors or in other makeshift shelters over a five-month period this year, a circumstance that Quin acknowledged has been traumatizing.

The state’s shortage of beds for kids found delinquent is equally dire. There’s a need for at least 180 beds to house teenage boys, but Wilder Youth Development Center, the state’s lockup for kids who have committed crimes, has just 120 available, said Sen. Page Walley, R-Bolivar, who is co-charing the committee.

“The challenge is we don’t have 180-190 beds,” he said. “We need to find them.”

Without space available at Wilder, delinquent youth remain in county lock ups intended only for short-term stays.

Last month, a panel of judges told the committee those county detention facilities are full and described the state’s juvenile justice system at “near collapse.”

Margie Williams Quin, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services. (Photo: LinkedIn)

Options lawmakers weighed Tuesday included reopening a pair of shuttered dorms within Wilder, adding more than 20 additional beds, repurposing former nursing homes or shuttered rural hospitals, utilizing existing state-owned buildings or constructing new facilities.

Ernst and Young, an outside consulting firm hired by the state, is currently studying possible options, Quin said. Space, however, is only part of the problem.

“We know we can’t put any more youth (in Wilder) until we hire staff,” Quin said. Salaries for youth development officers, however, start at just $22,000 annually.

“As you can imagine, we are not competitive in that area until we can raise compensation,” said Quin, who told lawmakers she’d like to see that salary doubled.

Wilder, located in rural Fayette County, has other challenges, too. A report released in April by Disability Rights Tennessee and Youth Law Center found multiple instances of physical and sexual abuse by guards.  More than 90% of youth at Wilder are Black, and 80% have learning disabilities, but were provided few meaningful services, the report said.

“It would seem the Department of Children’s Services has simply given up” on trying to rehabilitate the youth inside, the report said, concluding that DCS is “wasting taxpayer dollars by warehousing youth.”

Tennessee Lookout is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Tennessee Lookout maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Holly McCall for questions: info@tennesseelookout.com. Follow Tennessee Lookout on Facebook and Twitter.

Published on October 26, 2022.