Helping youth in need

Catholic Charities Safe Place for Kids supports Department of Children’s Services

By Gabrielle Nolan

In Knox County, children in custody with the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services (DCS) need a safe place to sleep at night.

A November report by WBIR-10News revealed that children were sleeping in DCS offices due to a lack of placement resources, such as foster homes or shelters, in addition to DCS staffing shortages.

Knox County Juvenile Court Judge Tim Irwin believes there has been a problem since the initial COVID epidemic.

Knox County Juvenile Court Judge Tim Irwin is shown on the bench in his courtroom. Judge Irwin and CCETN are working together to provide quality temporary housing and care for juveniles who are under Department of Children’s Services oversight.

“The Department of Children’s Services has been severely short-staffed,” Judge Irwin explained. “They’re down, currently, 46 percent of their workforce. The agencies that contract with the department are also down significantly, and what this does is results in less people to do the work of investigating foster-care supervision (and) placement.”

Judge Irwin, a parishioner of the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, is entering his 18th year as a judge.

“You don’t get bogged down with statistics and numbers,” he said. “It’s a one-child-at-a-time business, and you do the best you can for every kid that appears in front of you, no matter what the circumstances are. You use all the resources that you can muster.”

“Sometimes, lately, we’ve been running out of resources, and that’s tragic,” Judge Irwin said. “To say the system has almost collapsed would not be inaccurate.”

Catholic Charities of East Tennessee, a partner with the Department of Children’s Services, offered their services to aid children in need through their Columbus Home Safe Place for Kids, which opened in April 2022.

“While everybody else is stepping away, Catholic Charities stepped up to help our department and help our youth in a time of dire need,” Judge Irwin said. “The work at Catholic Charities Safe Place has just come up and knocked it out of the ballpark to help some of our kids that need the help the most.”

Columbus Home Safe Place for Kids

Lisa Healy, executive director of Catholic Charities of East Tennessee, noted the staffing shortage for DCS and the “great resignation” that has happened throughout the country post-COVID.

“It’s been really, really tough for DCS to do what they do, but they do it with great care and they do it the best that they can. We really are a very proud partner of, first and foremost, our children in Knox County and [Knoxville], but with the Department of Children’s Services and with the juvenile court,” Mrs. Healy said. “Any way that we can help them, if we can do it, we’re going to do it.”

Judge Irwin and DCS approached Mrs. Healy last year asking if they had a space to safely host children in need.

“Columbus Home Safe Place for Kids is a new program that Catholic Charities opened in response to the need of children in Knox County,” she continued. “These kids are already in the custody of the Department of Children’s Services.”

Judge Irwin noted that Safe Place for Kids is not used for treatment or rehabilitation but is a temporary solution “until we can find [the children] a permanent placement bed for them to stay and get the services that they need.”

Catholic Charities of East Tennessee’s Safe Place for Kids in Knoxville provides quality housing and care for children who are under Department of Children’s Services oversight.

“Catholic Charities has stepped up during this time in order to keep kids from sleeping on the floor of the DCS offices and has come up with safe places to enable the kids to go stay in more of a home environment with a worker there,” Judge Irwin said. “It makes it much easier, and it’s much more suitable for short-term stays.”

Catholic Charities’ Safe Place for Kids has a dual space where children in DCS custody can safely stay and DCS employees can work near the children.

For the children, there is a desk to do homework, and there is availability for a tutor; there are movies and video games to enjoy; there is a kitchenette where the children can help themselves to snacks and microwavable meals; a basketball court and walking trail are on the property; and, if needed, there are bedrooms for the children to stay overnight. Clothing and hygienic items also are provided.

“But in that same space, DCS has a place to continue to work on their computers, working to place the kids in their custody,” Mrs. Healy said. “So, these case managers have a place to work while they’re with their kids, and their kids have age-appropriate kid activities in the same place. So, it’s a win-win.”

The Safe Place for Kids environment has greatly helped reduce the number of children sleeping on the DCS office floors, but there are still occasionally kids who go without a bed.

“Once in a while, we fill up even all the beds that Catholic Charities has provided and there still are, regrettably, some kids sleeping in the DCS offices. But not nearly as many as there was before the program started,” Judge Irwin said.

‘We’re still serving kids’

Judge Irwin noted that part of the solution will be finding more organizations to partner with DCS to safely house children until they are placed.

“I mean, here we got the Catholic Church through their charitable arm of Catholic Charities taking care of kids who I bet are 98-99 percent Protestant, and that’s OK. Let’s get some of these other faiths to reach out and do the same thing; that’d be great,” he said.

The juvenile court judge also hopes that long-term-care organizations get restaffed and that more foster homes open up, or that more individuals decide to become foster parents.

“And of course, we’d like to have a fully staffed Department of Children’s Services,” Judge Irwin said.

Amid the struggles within the system, Mrs. Healy recognizes the dedication of DCS employees.

A bedroom with bunk beds for youth who are sheltered at Catholic Charities of East Tennessee’s Safe Place for Kids . Knox County Juvenile Court is working with Catholic Charities to assist DCS in housing children on a temporary basis as DCS works to provide permanent housing for the children.

“I’ve not ever met somebody that works for DCS that doesn’t have a love for these kids deep down in their heart. They do a wonderful job,” Mrs. Healy said.

“It is so evident that the best interests of those children are always first and foremost on Judge Irwin’s mind,” she continued. “When you go to his court … there’s toys for those kids to play with while he’s working with the parents; there’s stuffed animals that he sends those kids home with.”

Mrs. Healy acknowledged that Judge Irwin created a safety council that meets every other month with shareholders involved with juveniles.

“There’s always a brain trust thinking about, you know, what do we have out there in resources to support kids? And more importantly, what do we need, and how do we get that going?” she said.

“If there’s something needed for the kids in the county, he’s the man to see; he’s the man that makes it happen, and he does it with a huge heart because not only is he just a wonderful man, but he’s involved,” Mrs. Healy said. “The children and families of Knox County are lucky to have him as an advocate and judge working in the judicial system on behalf of the kids.”

Judge Irwin is thankful for Safe Place for Kids because it helps “kids that are in dire need, that are stressed out anyway, that don’t need to be sleeping in an office.”

He noted that bandage solutions will lead to “a larger fix soon.”

“So, we’re working, and we’re still here, and we’re trying every day. And Catholic Charities has been a huge ally in that struggle,” he said. “We’re still serving kids. [CCETN] has filled a need that nobody else is willing to come in and fill, and I’m eternally grateful.”

Comments 2

  1. This is a good report that needs to be shouted from every rooftop and every pulpit; Catholic AND Protestant as well as our multiple media sources.
    Thank you for sharing.

  2. This is a good report that needs to be shouted from every rooftop and every pulpit; Catholic AND Protestant as well as our multiple media sources.
    Thank you for sharing.

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