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Advocates are calling for earlier intervention in youth justice system and DCS

“We must build strong families, and surround them with the support to love and care for their children.”

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Editor's Note: I a previous version, we said DCS had transferred a 15 year old to adult prison, however this was a misread, DCS had made incorrigibility transfers of 15 youth, this has since been corrected.

Advocates are calling for more to be done before children end up in custody at the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services.

“We must build strong families, and surround them with the support to love and care for their children,” said Zoe Jamail from Disability Rights Tennessee.

The current conditions at DCS have been called horrific, and people are looking for lawmakers to enforce some form of change. $156 million has been requested to help solve some of the issues like staffing and creating safer facilities, however advocates from Disability Rights Tennessee and the Youth Law Center said not enough of it is being used to address the people affected, and the over 9,000 children in DCS custody.

“That vision has to be families, not facilities,” said Jasmine Miller from the Youth Law Center.

The two organizations released a report on December 21st with recommendations on how lawmakers can best address the issues in the youth justice system and at DCS. The goals are mainly focused on addressing the issues before the department gets involved.

First, they suggest investing in family-centered interventions, using both the parent and the children to help solve the problem before separating families, sometimes over long distances. 

According to the report, 371 children have been sent out of state by DCS.

“Out-of-state placements are problematic for so many different reasons, but the biggest reason is that those youth have very little contact from and support from their family,” said Jamail.

Second, they suggest utilizing multi-disciplinary teams to assess the needs of both children and the family. From there, design the best services to prevent families from being broken up in order for a child to access the service otherwise.

“A youth shouldn’t have to go to a facility in order to receive those services,” said Jamail.

Third, the groups said the racial and geographic disparities should be addressed in the youth justice systems.

“A lot of folks that are in youth justice custody are young folks who are black, are young folks who have prior contact with child welfare, and many of them have disabilities,” said Jamail.

Fourth, the groups said community-based mental health services should expand, which continue to be a massive need for many family members. They said this can help families develop the skills and support networks they need.

Fifth, focus on reducing the crossover that exists between child welfare and the youth justice system in Tennessee.

“90% of youth in the youth justice system have had prior contact with DCS on the child welfare side,” said Jamail.

Lastly, reaffirm Tennessee’s commitment to youth justice and end administrative transfers to the adult criminal justice system.  The organizations said an incorrigibility transfer would allow 18 year old's in DCS custody to be sent to adult prison.  They add that the legislature has floated lowering the age to 16.

ABC24 reached out for a comment from DCS regarding the recommendations and in an email they responded:

“DCS is committed to expanding resources and improving support for Tennessee children, and we are encouraged by the support of members in the General Assembly and our community partners. Since assuming her role at the department this fall, Commissioner Quin has spoken candidly about the challenges that DCS is facing. In a recent legislative hearing, the Commissioner spoke at length about operational improvements and other meaningful solutions DCS is now pursuing to address these challenges.”

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