Two whistleblowers at the Tennessee Department of Children's Services said top leaders within DCS ordered them to cover up dangerous conditions at homes where abused and neglected children are staying.
A former DCS employee and a current employee told Scripps News Nashville that Commissioner Margie Quin did not want written inspections of the homes because she was concerned about reports falling into the hands of the media.
Brenda Myers resigned from DCS after she says her supervisor instructed her to revise an inspection report that detailed dangerous conditions inside a transitional home in Nashville.
DCS opened transitional homes across the state to keep children from sleeping in state office buildings while they waited to be placed in foster homes.
In March, Quin told lawmakers, "I'm happy to tell you we no longer have kids sleeping in offices."
In early July, Myers and Jared Holmes inspected a state-run transitional home in Nashville.
Myers conducted the inspection as director of Provider Monitoring and Evaluation, a unit within DCS that inspects residential foster care facilities.
"During that inspection, we found that the conditions were deplorable and that children were not safe in that environment," Myers said.
Jared Holmes, who still works at DCS in the Provider Monitoring and Evaluation unit, was also disturbed by what he saw.
"There were holes in the walls, exposed electrical wiring, and the kids did not have enough food to eat," Holmes said.
Myers wrote in a memo dated July 6: "It is recommended that immediate action be taken to reduce risk of harm to youth."
The memo emphasized a lack of food in the home.
She wrote: "On July 5, there was no food to serve for breakfast and some youth reported that they did not get anything to eat for dinner the night prior because other youths took more than their portion."
She found there were only four beds available for eight young men who stayed in the facility, and that "bedrooms were in a state of disarray with clothing and trash littered on the floor and graffiti on the walls."
The report indicated many children were not getting their prescribed medications and even found a toilet "not bolted down to the floor allowing it to be moved."
Scripps News Nashville asked Myers, "If you went to a home and saw conditions like that, what would you do?"
She responded, "We would recommend removal."
Myers and Holmes believed DCS leadership would act quickly to correct the problems once they read the July 6 memo.
"I truly hoped that shedding light and providing a factual account of what we saw and the conditions to the commissioner, that she would want to act swiftly," Myers said.
But Myers said the day after she wrote the memo she was called into a meeting with Quin and senior DCS leadership.
"The purpose of the meeting was to send the message that reports like this should not be sent to her and it would not be tolerated," Myers said.
She said the commissioner was most concerned that the media might see the memo.
"She indicated that I was not a team player," Myers said.
"She knew very well the conditions that were out there. She said if we think this is bad, wait until we go to the one in Clarksville," Myers added.
But it is what her supervisor told her to do after the meeting that led to her leaving.
"He told me that I needed to write a new report that would mitigate the findings from the first, so that if there was a media request he could give an updated report to the media that would show the conditions weren't as bad," Myers said.
She said she reluctantly wrote a memo on July 7, which stated many of the problems identified the day before were "no longer an area of concern" based on what she was told by DCS leadership.
Myers said she voluntarily left the department after writing that memo.
"Why didn't you go back to work?" Scripps News Nashville asked Myers.
She responded, "She intended for me to engage in activities that would cover up the conditions there."
Scripps News Nashville made a public records request for all inspections of transitional homes through October, and DCS provided the inspection written by Myers on July 6, along with the one she wrote the very next day.
DCS says there have been no other reports for any transitional homes since July.
Scripps News Nashville asked Myers about that statement.
"It doesn't surprise me at all," she said.
"DCS leadership does not want it in writing, anything in writing, to reflect the actual conditions there and in fact, they already know what the conditions are like," Myers added.
DCS said it "does not comment on former employees," but in a statement told Scripps News Nashville that "transitional homes pose a unique challenge due to the destructive behavior of some of the youth awaiting placement."
The department sent a second statement, stating, "Despite incredible progress in the last year, there is still much work to be done. Children and youth in transitional housing face tremendous challenges when coming into the care of DCS."
"DCS leadership is not taking responsibility for the conditions. They blame the children for not having enough food to eat," Myers said.
Holmes said it was not an easy decision to come forward.
"It feels like it's trying to be covered up, so I want people to know what is happening," Holmes said.
He realizes DCS has fired others for talking to the media.
"There was a lot of prayer involved and talking to my wife and small group at church," Holmes said.
He said he is speaking out for the kids in the transition home.
"They need to know someone is in their corner. You know they have already gone through the traumatic experience of being removed from their home," Holmes said.
"The commissioner can say there are not kids sleeping in DCS offices, but she cannot say they are in safer environments," Myers said.
Full statement from DCS:
"Despite incredible progress in the last year, there is still much work to be done. Children and youth in transitional housing face a tremendous challenge when coming into the care of DCS. Our staff and the onsite behavioral health specialists work to meet the needs of those youth every day. When damage or destruction occurs in the houses, work begins immediately to repair, purchase or replace. Commissioner Quin continues to be transparent about the challenges of placement but remains optimistic about support from community partners and the faith community that responded when the need was great. The DCS real estate plans Governor Lee and the State Building Commission approved in September will provide more stable solutions for DCS and children entering our care. Those plans are underway and will lay the groundwork for modernizing Tennessee’s child welfare system."
This story was published by Ben Hall at Scripps News Nashville.
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