State DCS declines to renew contract with local child shelter

By Thomas Wilson

   The Tennessee Department of Children's Services will no longer house juveniles at the Emergency Child Shelter in Elizabethton when the state contract between the two entities expires June 30, according to a DCS representative.
   "We are not going to renew our contract with them," said Carla Aaron, public information officer with the DCS office in Nashville. "We actually have reallocated some money in our budget. With the needs we have, this facility just doesn't meet those needs."
   Aaron stated the shelter was a "Level 1 facility," which provided the least restrictive environment for adolescents.
   "We are trying to pull a lot of our kids out of Level 1 and into foster homes, which we feel is a more appropriate environment," she said.
   She also stated that the DCS' decision was not motivated by a recent report that two juveniles allegedly sodomized another juvenile at the shelter.
   Detectives with the Elizabethton Police Department reported investigating allegations that a 16-year-old male resident of the shelter had been sodomized with a toilet plunger by two 15-year-old male residents in late May.
   Police arrested the two juveniles on June 7 and charged them with aggravated rape and conspiracy to commit aggravated rape. They are scheduled to appear in Carter County Juvenile Court on July 20.
   Authorities have not released the names of the victim or the suspects.
   Aaron said the DCS conducted internal investigations into allegations of sexual abuse at facilities contracted with the department.
   "If there is a report of sexual abuse, there is an investigation initiated with child investigative services and law enforcement," said Aaron.
   "They would certainly investigate sex abuse allegations, but also, they would be looking at the facility. Did they bear any responsibility and did they report it according to the procedures and according to the law?"
   An internal investigation would also include an interview with a facility's director to learn what he or she knew and how the agency responded to the incident, she said.
   "We would also be looking at the safety of that child at any other facility," she added. "We would want to ensure all children are remaining in a safe setting and not exposed to any other abuse."
   Emergency Child Shelter officials did not respond to repeated attempts of contact by the Star seeking comment.
   Judy Cole, regional administrator with DCS for eight counties in Northeast Tennessee, said the department's quality assurance division also investigated incidents with DCS contracted facilities.
   "An investigation depends on what the findings are," said Cole. "We make decisions individually about each of those situations."
   Each facility contracted with the state must meet requirements listed in the department's request for proposal, which solicits bids for products and services from the private sector, she said.
   Cole and Aaron said all facilities contracted to perform service for DCS were required to meet all licensing rules for the services they were expected to deliver.
   Aaron stated that DCS officials interviewed the victim and other shelter residents involved as part of any investigation into allegations of sexual abuse.
   The department's action involving such an incident would depend on the individual agency's response, notification of the incident to DCS, and what corrective action was taken to prevent a similar incident from occurring in the future, she said.
   The DCS implemented corrective action plans with a contracted agency detailing what measures should be taken to rectify the problem or issue, said Aaron.
   "Those are real common. We do those with a lot of agencies," she said. "Sometimes we will freeze admission. We won't put any more children in that agency until we see they have corrected that problem.
   "We don't want to close the agencies down."
   Aaron said the department was making arrangements to relocate juveniles currently residing at the shelter to new homes.
   As of last week, there were only five adolescents at the shelter, according to Aaron.