Lawmakers request review of juvenile detention practices following ProPublica-WPLN investigation

Tennessee Senate Democrats
4 min readNov 17, 2023

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NASHVILLE — Lawmakers are calling on the Department of Children’s Services to audit juvenile detention practices statewide following a report by ProPublica and WPLN alleging that a facility in Knoxville openly violated state law without consequences.

“…We are requesting an immediate compliance audit of the juvenile detention facilities regarding applicable state and federal laws and DCS rules, regulations and policies,” wrote Sen. Heidi Campbell in a letter, signed by more than a dozen lawmakers, to DCS Commissioner Margie Quin.

“We also ask Department leadership to intervene immediately to prevent minors from being confined in ways that are inconsistent with state law and to develop a more aggressive enforcement policy to ensure future compliance.”

The letter points to news investigations at other juvenile detention facilities to underscore the urgency for correcting DCS’s lapses in oversight. “Even after several years of intense scrutiny of the Department’s practices, unsanctioned activity — similar to what is alleged to have taken place at the Bean center — has also been reported at the Wilder Youth Development Center as well as the Rutherford County Juvenile Detention Center.”

The letter is signed by Sen. Heidi Campbell, Sen. Sara Kyle, Sen. Charlane Oliver, Rep. Aftyn Behn, Rep. John Ray Clemmons, Rep. Bob Freeman, Rep. G.A. Hardaway, Rep. Torrey Harris, Rep. Caleb Hemmer, Rep. Gloria Johnson, Rep. Sam McKenzie, Rep. Larry Miller, Rep. Bo Mitchell, and Rep. Dwayne Thompson.

This is not the first time Sen. Campbell and Rep. Johnson have worked together to hold the Department of Children’s Services accountable. Last year, Sen. Campbell and Rep. Johnson led a campaign to oust a Rutherford County juvenile court judge who, for years, was found to be violating state law by jailing minors without cause. That story has since been turned into a podcast “The Kids of Rutherford County.”

Recently, the duo sponsored legislation to improve the care and services received by children in state custody.

The full text of the letter sent Nov. 17 is included below:

Commissioner Quin,

An article published Nov. 16, 2023 by ProPublica and WPLN/Nashville Public Radio demands an immediate response and action from the Department of Children’s Services.

It is alarming, but sadly not surprising, to read that children are being held in seclusion — in direct violation of state law and department policy — and potentially suffering abuse while in state custody at the Richard L. Bean Juvenile Service Center in Knoxville, Tenn.

Sentiments shared to the reporter Paige Pfleger by the center’s administrator are equally disturbing. He said, “What we do is treat everybody like they’re in here for murder… If I got in trouble for it, I believe I could talk to whoever got me in trouble and get out of it.”

The Department has a constitutional duty to the legislature to enforce state laws and a moral obligation to children to ensure that youth in state-licensed facilities are being treated humanely and in accordance with Department guidelines. Any juvenile detention facility administrator who openly defies state detention rules is promoting a culture of lawlessness and should soon find themselves out of a job.

What’s worse is that this is not an isolated incident. Even after several years of intense scrutiny of the Department’s practices, unsanctioned activity — similar to what is alleged to have taken place at the Bean center — has also been reported at the Wilder Youth Development Center as well as the Rutherford County Juvenile Detention Center.

There is no excuse for cutting corners or for lax enforcement of state law when the consequences of these failures so clearly affect minors who have already fallen through the cracks.

To make culture changes that improve the lives of youth engaged with our juvenile justice system, the Department must set a high standard for itself and its community partners.

To that end, we are requesting an immediate compliance audit of the juvenile detention facilities regarding applicable state and federal laws and DCS rules, regulations and policies. We also ask Department leadership to intervene immediately to prevent minors from being confined in ways that are inconsistent with state law and to develop a more aggressive enforcement policy to ensure future compliance.

We understand the challenges the Department is up against and we know how difficult the important work of caring for youth in detention can be. But no matter how unruly, combative, or difficult a child may be, it is the Department’s responsibility to support them in a compassionate, responsible, ethical, and legal manner.

We respectfully await your response.

Letter images

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