As he tried to beat back questions the day after his embattled children’s services commissioner stepped down, Gov. Bill Haslam threw Wite-Out on the fire.
His administration had just handed a chancellor an estimated price tag of more than $55,000 to be charged to media outlets — notably the Gannett-owned Tennessean — seeking records on the deaths or abuse of more than 200 children who at one time crossed paths with the Department of Children's Services.
On the list was almost $12,000 to cover staffing and mileage to travel the state collecting copies of files and hand-delivering the sensitive documents. On top of hiring paralegals to work 600 hours redacting files, the estimate included $500 for 600 rolls of white correction tape to hide confidential information.
“I’ll be glad to pay the $500, if Gannett is struggling,” quipped Haslam.
The governor had been taking questions for months about the status of DCS, a beleaguered department plagued with problems, such as a troublesome case management system, calls going unanswered to their call center and difficulty tracking child deaths.
Pressure began building last summer when a state representative had trouble getting details on child deaths from DCS. The department later revealed 31 child deaths in the first half of the year, but was short on details. After constant hounding from The Tennessean for more information, nearly a dozen media outlets rallied behind the paper and agreed to sue the state for extensive details on cases over the past three years — cases where a child whose life intersected at least once with the department died or nearly died.
The result was a legal battle and ramped-up criticism of the department’s commissioner, Kathryn O’Day, the governor’s appointee to the position, who led a foster care provider in Knoxville while Haslam was mayor there.
As attention on DCS intensified, the governor continued to defend the commissioner. As much as a week before she announced she’d resign, he said “it was a pretty big statement” to suggest the governor was unhappy with her work and would eventually end her tenure.
“Listen, Commissioner O’Day is like everybody else in our administration. At the end of the day, we have a job to do and she knows that and understands that. We know that we will do better in making certain we’re protecting the interests of children all over Tennessee.”
O’Day resigned anyway, saying she had become more of a focus than the children the department is supposed to serve and it was time to go. Her resignation came a day before she was supposed to testify to a legislative committee on the tribulations of the department.
When reporters asked Haslam the day after she resigned whether O’Day had done anything wrong, he didn’t answer. “I’ve done things wrong as governor, today. I don’t know that that’s a fair question of any of us.”
O’Day is the first commissioner Haslam has had to replace, and the situation is one of his administration’s first major controversies.
To manage the situation, the governor called in Tom Ingram, a longtime political operative who worked on Haslam’s successful gubernatorial campaign as a consultant.
“It’s a very complicated department and it turned out to be a very complicated situation. There are no simple answers,” Ingram told The City Paper. “He has handled a lot of tough issues, and not all of them have been this public. ... The public nature of it was part of the crisis as well.”
When O’Day eventually turned in her resignation, the governor laid some blame on the media, saying O’Day had become a “lightning rod” and there was no way she could still be productive amid the heightened scrutiny.
Critics said the governor could have acted sooner when it came to O’Day and the troubled agency.
“I did think it was rather significant that he continued to protect her for as long as he did when there were so many things, there were so many things, coming out that were wrong,” said Rep. Sherry Jones, a Nashville Democrat who zeros in on children’s issues and was the first to ask DCS to review child death records.
“The numbers of kids that were getting hurt and dying was unbelievable,” she added. “I really felt like he should have cut the string a lot sooner than what he did. Of course, it’s a lot harder to cut your friends loose if they’re working for you than it is someone that you hired from some agency somewhere that you don’t know.”
“Government, by definition, operates in crisis. It just does,” said Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, defending the governor. “When we find something wrong, we fix it. People say, ‘Why didn’t you fix it before?’ Nine times out of 10, it was because we didn’t know anything was wrong.
“I bet if you polled this state, there isn’t 10 percent of the people who know there was a long legal fight. Do they know DCS has a problem? Yes, because I think they touch a lot of lives across the state,” he said.
Tennessee’s last governor, Phil Bredesen, also let go his first DCS commissioner in his first term. In Bredesen’s case, he fired Commissioner Michael Miller, saying he needed someone who could bring “cultural change” to the department. Bredesen declined to comment for this story.
Also declining to speak was O’Day, who is working with the department in an advisory capacity through the end of the month, with pay and benefits.
She is assisting Interim Commissioner Jim Henry, who had been running the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities in the Haslam administration. He, too, declined to comment at this time.
Haslam probably didn’t know what long-standing problems DCS was facing when he was elected, said Kent Flanagan, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, which is a party in the lawsuit.
“It was not a high enough priority to keep his eye on. He was looking at his own agenda,” Flanagan said.
As the agency moves forward under its new leadership, the next step is revisiting the price tag the state will charge the onslaught of media organizations wanting to flip through case files detailing the deaths and near-deaths of children as far back as 2009. The media coalition behind the lawsuit hasn’t officially decided whether to challenge the administration’s estimated $55,000 open-record invoice.
“I’d like to think it wasn’t intentionally done to frustrate transparency, but it had that effect,” said Dick Williams, chairman of public advocacy group Common Cause.
“Haslam had confidence in [O’Day] and felt that she was not the problem, maybe it kind of made sense for him to stick with her. But supporting the exorbitant fee to get the information for the press and the public, I think is the wrong move,” Williams said.
While there’s no way to get away from the tension of information not being readily available, attorney Bob Tuke, who has spent much of his time focusing on adoption law, wants the DCS community to start finding ways to fix the problems bedeviling the agency.
“Let’s focus on how it’s best done, and let’s make sure that it’s clear that every single person in DCS or any government agency or private agency, that the welfare and safety of the child always come first. Always, always, always,” he said.