Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN

Area News

April 11, 2013

Cumberland leading fight against child abuse

CROSSVILLE — Last year, the parents of more than 1,760 children were arrested and booked into the Cumberland County Jail. There were also 118 crimes against children and 560 cases of domestic assault. More than 60 percent were charged with alcohol or drug offenses.

"One of the things that got my attention was we had a recidivism rate of more than 85 percent," said Sheriff Butch Burgess said. "What we've been doing is not working."

Burgess was approached by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to implement and model a plan to help protect children at risk due to drug endangerment. The state program, developed four years ago, was actually developed from protocols and procedures already in use in Cumberland County and Burgess says it's based on a simple concept.

"Everybody works together," he said.

That might sound simple, but sharing of information between law enforcement and the Tennessee Department of Children's Services is not the norm in many counties in the state. Some of that has to do with the way laws are written that prevents the children's agency from sharing information with local law enforcement.

"We're changing that," Burgess said.

Deputy District Attorney Gary McKenzie said everyone was concerned with making sure children didn't slip through the cracks of needing help.

"We can make that safety net, the holes in it, smaller so these children don't fall through," he said. "If a child is suffering, we need to know about it."

Burgess accepted the challenge of the TBI, but told them it would be some time before the agency was involved.

"The problem was down below them. We needed to work our way up to them," Burgess said. "And we have."

Burgess, working with the city of Crossville Police Department, the District Attorney General's office and DCS formed the Drug-Endangered and At-Risk Children's Team, or DEAR.

One of the first steps Burgess took was utilizing funds allocated for training to send a former corrections officer to moral reconciliation therapy training.

"Every time we found a problem, we said, 'How are we going to fix it,'" Burgess said.

Books for the program weren't in the budget, but a bit of luck appeared to provide $5,000. That came from Jim Carell, president of CareAll Home Health Services, who had been involved in an accident at Lake Tansi in 1993. In 2011, he returned to Cumberland County with gifts to thank those involved in saving his life, including Burgess.

Burgess also found a computer tracking system in Colorado that could be used to notify DCS when someone they have an open case on is arrested. Currently, there is no way for DCS to know if the parent they are about to recommend be granted custody of their children was arrested in the preceding few days. Colorado selected Tennessee as a state to expand the program too based on the DEAR Team program. It will be administered by the TBI.

Chad Norris, an investigator with the Cumberland County Sheriff's Department's special investigations unit, acts as facilitator for the level one DEAR Team. He gathers information on cases referred by law enforcement, schools, health care providers and others and shares it at the weekly meetings between law enforcement, the district attorney's office and DCS.

"Our concern is, are we getting all the cases? Because I feel like we're not," Norris said.

Norris noted all those that suspect a child is being abused are required by law to report that to DCS, by contacting 911 if the situation is a life-threatening emergency, calling 1-877-54ABUSE for anonymous reports, or at reportabuse.state.tn.us.

Norris encourages those reporting suspected cases of child abuse or neglect to also contact him so that law enforcement has a record of the case.

In law enforcement, if officers answer a call and notice evidence of children at the scene, such as a domestic situation where there are children in the home or a methamphetamine lab where children may not be present but toys and other indications show children have been in the space, they can call for a DEAR-trained officer that will approach the case from the point of view of the children while the responding officer works their case.

The second level of the DEAR Team are the schools, juvenile court, emergency medical services, medical providers, the House of Hope and Child Advocacy Center. These agencies all have referral forms. The school system also has personnel that have completed the training.

When the team receives a referral, they work to find out everything they can about the family, who is living in the home, people associated with the family and the history of calls to the county's E-911 call center.

The team will discuss not only prosecution but how to help families that may be in need of services in the community. That's where the level three team members come in to play. These are area nonprofit agencies, human resource agencies, churches and other organizations that can help solve barriers a family is facing.

The program has noted several successes, including one of a woman who was completing an eight-month sentence. Her siblings, 11 of them, had all been in and out of foster care and, later, in and out of jail. She was in jail after she and her mother had broken into a residence while on drugs.

Burgess learned she didn't have custody of her children. She didn't have a home. She didn't have a job. She also didn't have a driver's license.

Her case was taken to the community organizations, which helped find temporary housing, find her a job and qualify for a hardship driver's license. Help was found to pay for the high-risk insurance she needed.

Today, she has her children back. She's living in an apartment and has a steady job. She's also going to college.

"And she's not been in jail in over a year," Burgess said.

Since September 2012, the DEAR Team has handled 59 cases involving 94 children. In some cases, parents have taken advantage of opportunities to improve their situation through drug rehabilitation or other services and completed requirements to get their children back in their custody. In other cases, children were removed to foster care because it provided a more stable, safer environment.

"Many of these are cases we would not have gotten without this program," Norris said.

Burgess said sometimes, in order to help children, the parents sometimes needed help. If the parents didn't want the help, the team was still there to help the children.

"We're not going to arrest our way out of this," Burgess said of the crimes committed in the community. "We can't keep building bigger jails. But if we can break the cycle with some of these kids and some of their parents, we've got to give them a chance, too, that's what this program is about."

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