Thursday, October 18, 2012

The DCS Situation Gets Curiouser and Curiouser

Posted By on Thu, Oct 18, 2012 at 4:51 AM

When last we checked in on the DCS situation, you'll remember they were blaming all their problems on a two-year-long struggle with the Tennessee Family and Child Tracking System (TFACTS). This program is supposed to be so terrible and so buggy that it basically prevents DCS from properly tracking children or being able to report what became of them. In other words, it prevented them from doing a basic component of their job.

To hear the DCS defenders talk, you'd think that dealing with TFACTS was just about the most critical thing DCS could do to improve its performance. Based on what they say, you'd imagine every single DCS employee was complaining about TFACTS morning, noon and night. You'd think that if TFACTS is the real problem in the department, employees would be all "Wow, we have to do something about that nonsense." Especially if they had a way to report it directly to the governor.

In light of that, it's surprising to go back and look at the governor's top-to-bottom review of DCS (pdf). Topics the governor's review team asked the thousands of people affiliated with DCS include:

• Is DCS’s mission appropriate for state government?
• In what areas can DCS be more effective?
• In what areas can DCS be more efficient?
• How can DCS better partner with other agencies and organizations to meet the needs of Tennesseans?

Doesn't it seem like employees would overwhelmingly address TFACTS being a piece of shit, if indeed it is, in their responses to "In what areas can DCS be more effective?" or "In what areas can DCS be more efficient?"

The review identifies a number of areas DCS needs to address to be a better department — things like strengthen community bonds, work more closely with the foster care review boards, communicate regularly with partners, offer more in-home services to Tennessee's kids, utilize data to track repeated reports of mistreatment, advance child safety by partnering with groups with promotional money, track recidivism in juvenile offenders, create an office of performance excellence, and better HR approaches.

Some of those things would seem to require a functioning system for tracking families and children. I mean, how could you utilize data to track repeated reports of mistreatment or track recidivism in juvenile offenders if your system for collecting and tracking data is a garbage nightmare that doesn't work?

And yet, there's no mention of this supposedly enormous problem in the review.

So, here are my questions. Is the top-to-bottom review not actually very thorough? Is that why the problem with TFACTS was not caught? If the review at DCS wasn't very thorough, does that indicate the whole top-to-bottom review of all state departments was just a bullshit bit of busywork to make it appear like the governor was really interested in making the state better? If it was just busywork, what problems lurk in other "reviewed" departments waiting to bite Tennessee in the ass? If the review was thorough and the workers at DCS just lied by omission about the problems with TFACTS, does that upset Gov. Haslam? Who might have ordered them to lie about the problems? Will Haslam find that person and discipline or dismiss him or her? And what is Haslam's plan for fixing DCS now that the problems with it can no longer be swept under the rug or hidden behind cheery reports?

Whether he realizes it or not, this is the first real test of Haslam's administration. Everything else — CANDO, the charter school blow up, his first veto — is minor compared to a situation in which his job is to mitigate harm to (and possible deaths of) children. In every other case, Haslam's seeming uncertainty about wielding the authority of his office, his waffling and waiting for some clear solution that would appease everyone, was entertaining to watch, if not a little painful.

But now lives are at stake. He has simply got to step up and find out if he has been fed a line, and then he's got to fix that department. If it's as simple as getting a working tracking system in place, great. If it's more complicated and he's got to fire people he knows mean well and have helped him politically, well, it says a lot about the kind of governor he is if he's not willing to do that in order to protect children.

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