Back from the Brink

After recent years of controversy and tragedy, will Child and Family Services be able to regain Knoxvillians' confidence and trust?

One of the first things Child and Family Services' new executive director, Kate O'Day restructured after coming to the embattled social services agency was her own office. When O'Day took possession of the modest but roomy space several floors up at Child and Family's Summit Hill Drive headquarters, she immediately noticed the gorgeous mountain view out her office window. Seated at her desk, however, the green East Tennessee vista was at her back; the desk had been positioned facing the building's internal doors, conference rooms, and hallways. O'Day quickly saw to it that her desk was turned so that when she works there, she is able to look out over Knoxville's homes, hilltops and trees.

"I wanted to be able to look outward rather than stare into the building at the backside of the door to my office," explains O'Day with a smile.

The symbolism of her office's physical transformation isn't lost on O'Day, the 45- year-old native Floridian who was hired early this year after a nationwide search by an executive recruiting firm engaged by Child and Family's volunteer board of directors. O'Day came to her post at the 70-year-old East Tennessee social services agency in the wake of significant controversy regarding many aspects of Child and Family's operations, including financial management and service delivery to clients. Following a year 2000 state audit revealing a budget shortfall of $2 million, as well

as widely-publicized allegations of dangerously sloppy care provided to some children enrolled in the agency's residential programs, the Child and Family board (headed by Joan Ashe, wife of Knoxville Mayor Victor Ashe) made the surprisingly abrupt decision to remove Child and Family's longtime director, Charlie Gentry, from his post. O'Day officially took the helm of the agency in March of 2001, just over a year after Gentry's departure, and pledged to turn it around.

Kate O'Day's quest to bring Child and Family back from the brink and regain the community's trust in its leadership and services was almost immediately put to the test, with the shocking death of a child housed in one of the agency's facilities. However, this week the Knoxville Police Department finally released findings absolving Child and Family staffers of any wrongdoing in the suicide of 14-year-old Johnny Hunley. Armed with that and a recent independent review by the Child Welfare League of America noting marked improvement in the agency's overall management and performance since the beginning of this year, O'Day believes that she and her reorganized staff are finally making significant progress in addressing the myriad problems facing Child and Family Services.

Child and Family Services is today the largest non-profit mental health and social services agency in East Tennessee, offering a cradle to grave slate of programs designed to assist and empower individuals and families. Founded in Knoxville in 1928 as an Episcopal Church-run "Mission of Help," the agency's first program addressed the needs of the city's unwed mothers and their babies.

Over its seven-decade history, Child and Family Services has steadily expanded its menu of services, as well as its budget and staff, and the agency currently offers 42 different programs, serving more than 40,000 Tennesseans annually. According to Child and Family spokesman David Bryant, the agency's 400-plus employees place it among the Knoxville area's larger employers.

For one-third of Child and Family Services' existence, the agency was headed up by former Director Charlie Gentry, a charismatic and visionary social worker-turned-non-profit executive who first joined the agency in 1973. Despite his eventual ouster by the Child and Family Services Board of Directors in 2000, Gentry is still widely-credited with growing the organization from a small, local adoption agency into the large, multi-tentacled, "one-stop-shopping" social services agency it became. When Gentry came to Child and Family Services, the agency had a staff of 15. At the time of his departure, it employed approximately 600.

"Although I've never met Charlie Gentry, I give him high marks for the amazing job that he did in raising the funds to build Child and Family into what it is today," says O'Day. "People shouldn't forget what he did for this agency and this community."

Under Gentry's leadership, Child and Family Services energetically raised millions of dollars in private donations and United Way funds, becoming one of Knoxville's favorite and best-known charitable organizations. Gentry also proved remarkably adept at tracking down and securing federal, state, and local tax dollars for Child and Family's ever-widening range of social service programs, including everything from sex abuse counseling for children to domestic violence shelters for women and families. Critics allege that Child and Family's constant quest for grant money eventually became the force driving its program development, rather than vice versa, leading to some superfluous or redundant services.

"With Charlie Gentry, the directive was always to land more grant money," says one former Child and Family administrator and current local therapist who asked not to be identified. "We would look at what money was available out there and then design and add programs for the sole purpose of attracting that funding. While I was there, it was a manic sort of growth pattern for the agency. There never seemed to be any master plan."

In addition to directing the agency through years of rapid growth, Charlie Gentry also evidenced a zeal for acquiring real estate. In many cases, the buildings and tracts he had the agency purchase were easily and effectively incorporated into the agency's programs and many are still in use today. In the case of some of his larger real estate acquisitions in the '90s, however, Child and Family's board of directors began questioning his judgment regarding the utility and cost-effectiveness of the land buys.

Notable among these missteps on Gentry's part was his decision to spend approximately $1 million of agency funds in 1993 on 193 indisputably gorgeous, rolling acres in the Seymour area. During the years following Child and Family's acquisition of what is known as "Brookhaven Farm," hundreds of thousands of dollars of agency funds were sunk into trying to figure out what to do with the property.

Gentry's ideas ranged from a residential work-therapy and life skills training program for troubled teens to a for-profit restaurant and corporate retreat center. Today the land sits empty except for the occasional picnic by one of the agency's youth programs, as Child and Family attempts to sell it and recoup its losses. Although Child and Family has been able to sell off a number of pieces of real estate since Gentry's departure, Brookhaven—currently appraised at $3.4 million—remains a costly albatross around the agency's neck.

"We have several realtors working regionally and nationally to market Brookhaven. It's definitely a seductive piece of property," explains O'Day. "I have seen other non-profits make the same mistake—thinking that they can start a for-profit endeavor to help fund their non-profit work, which is what was the idea at Brookhaven. Unfortunately, I've never seen it work and it didn't work in this instance."

A BRAND NEW O'DAY FOR CFS

At the time of Charlie Gentry's forced exit in January of 2000, many in the community found it difficult to imagine anyone else at the helm of the agency. Despite the serious problems facing Child and Family, including an array of allegations by the state's Department of Children's Services (DCS) of staff negligence and safety violations at a number of Child and Family-operated programs, some longtime supporters of the agency were dismayed by the board's decision to pin these problems on Gentry. Fourth Circuit Judge Bill Swann was quoted at the time as saying that he was shocked at the board's move, and he referred to Gentry as "the architect of all that is good" at the agency. However, the Joan Ashe-led Board stood by its decision, appointing Gentry' s longtime second-in-command, Lynelle Hammett, as an interim director and beginning the search for Gentry's permanent replacement.

As agency board members began their nationwide search for their next leader, Kate O'Day had never heard of Child and Family Services, nor had she ever been to East Tennessee. Instead, O'Day had plenty on her own plate as a divorced mother and the vice president of program development and evaluation for the Children's Home Society (CHS) of Florida, a 98-year-old accredited child and family service agency with $65 million in annual revenue and 1,900 employees. In that role, she was responsible for managing the inventory of all CHS programs and for developing a model for a statewide continuum of services.

O'Day, a licensed clinical social worker in the state of Florida, says that although she was happy in her position with Children's Home Society, she had begun to realize that she had perhaps gone as far as she could go with her current employer.

"The other top positions were filled, and I was the ranking woman there," explains O'Day. "It was a dream job in many ways, but I had begun to think about what was next for me professionally."

It was then that O'Day was contacted by Dr. Karen Sowers, dean of the University of Tennessee College of Social Work and a former professor of O'Day's. Sowers, who was assisting Child and Family's Search Committee, asked O'Day if she would be interested in taking a look at the agency and its open position. O'Day agreed, although initially she saw herself as merely offering short-term consulting services to the agency during its recruitment process as it attempted to get back on track financially and programatically.

"Given the agency's recent history, I was pleased to see how open the board was with me," remembers O'Day. "They gave me everything and told me to 'pull the curtains back.' I went over newspaper clippings, letters, financial statements."

O'Day's eventual hiring marked the culmination of a national search conducted by a Child and Family search committee, in collaboration with an executive search firm, the Development Resource Group. More than 60 internal and external candidates applied for the position, and O'Day was one of three who were brought to Knoxville for extensive interviews.

"Moving to East Tennessee was a huge step for me and for my children. I had lived in Florida for my entire life," says O'Day, "But I really like East Tennessee. It still has a wonderful, small-town feeling, which reminds me of the South Florida I knew when I was growing up."

A WILL FOR CHANGE

Kate O'Day's first day on the job with Child and Family Services was March 5 of this year, and she says that she immediately saw the strong desire on the part of Child and Family staff to see the agency get its act together.

"I was just blown away by the institutional will for change on the part of the staff across the board at this agency," says O'Day. "These hard-working people were tired of reading negative stories about Child and Family in the local press. They found that very painful. They were on the front lines in these difficult situations day after day and kept hearing from the media about all these problems."

O'Day's initial analysis of the agency revealed that the agency had "failed to invest in itself." She saw an organization that had grown in a patchwork fashion without creating the infrastructure to support that growth. "I have seen this happen with many non-profits," O'Day says. "It's not that unusual."

O'Day spent the first several months on the job going over the agency's budget "item by item and line by line," looking for places to trim expenses and boost efficiency. She quickly eliminated dozens of management-level jobs and invited laid-off administrators to re-apply for a smaller number of restructured positions with the agency. Additionally, O'Day began the process of creating a much-needed agencywide quality assurance system and named a director of "excellence in services" for the agency.

According to longtime employees and associates of Child and Family Services, O'Day's impact on the agency was felt immediately.

"We felt energized about our work for the first time in years," says one caseworker. "She helped all of us believe again that things could improve for the better."

Dr. Karen Sowers, now a member of Child and Family's board of directors, has a similar assessment of O'Day's out-of-the-gate performance.

"Despite the state of the organization, Ms. O'Day accepted the challenge and has done a remarkable job in reorganizing and streamlining the organization," says Sowers.

As pressing as the need for cost-cutting was, O'Day was equally motivated to improve the agency's frayed reputation as a contracted provider of residential treatment and group foster care for children and youth in the custody of the Tennessee Department of Children's Services.

In May of 2001, only eight weeks after coming on board with Child and Family, O'Day had the task of presenting to the media and public the results of the latest performance review audit of the agency by the state Department of Finance and Administration. Although this review—conducted during the interim between Gentry's dismissal and O'Day's hiring—noted a stabilization of the agency's precarious finances, it still cited the agency for deviations from best practices in some of its residential programs for children. Of particular concern to state auditors were issues at Child and Family's Haslam Center, East Tennessee's only residential treatment facility for children in state custody who suffer from serious psychiatric and emotional problems.

O'Day says that she saw merit in the state's recommendations regarding needed changes at Haslam and had already begun working with staff there to make needed changes at the facility when, as agency spokesman David Bryant puts it, "our worst nightmare took place."

A DEATH IN THE FAMILY

Standing in what was once the bedroom of Haslam Center resident Johnny Hunley, it's hard to imagine the terrifying sight that greeted a Haslam staff member when he looked in on the child shortly after 3 p.m. on the afternoon of June 22 of this year. For one thing, as in all the bedrooms at the psychiatric facility, the closet in which "Jo" Hunley hanged himself from a metal rod has been dismantled since his death and replaced with open shelving. And the room's new residents have decorated it with the typical knick knacks and possessions of young teens. Looking around at the tidy single beds and schoolbooks stacked on the dressers, the cheery room hardly looks like a place where a child might decide to end his own life. Sadly, however, that's exactly what happened.

Kate O'Day says that she was on her way back to Knoxville from a shopping trip in Georgia when she got the call that a child in the agency's care had been found hanged in his closet at Haslam Center.

"I got the call from [then-Haslam director] Mark Potts telling me what had happened, and I was just stunned," remembers O'Day. "I felt sick."

O'Day says she and other Child and Family administrators immediately gathered at the agency's offices to personally call board members to inform them of Hunley's death. The next day she arranged for counselors to visit with staff members at Haslam to help them deal with the overwhelming grief they were feeling.

"One staff member I visited with the next day was stoic when we first began talking, but then she just burst into tears and began sobbing," recalls O'Day. "We were all just devastated. As a mother, I just felt heartbroken for this child's family and for the people who had cared for him at Haslam Center."

Compounding Child and Family's staff's personal grief over Hunley's death, a criminal investigation was quickly launched, leading to ongoing, high-profile press coverage of the case throughout the summer and fall. Knoxville police investigators, as well as the Knox County Medical Examiner's Office, revealed concerns that they had about whether Hunley's death was a clear-cut case of suicide. Bruises found on the child's body and a reported history of physical abuse at the hands of other Haslam residents raised troubling questions about the circumstances surrounding Hunley's death. The case was closed by police early in the summer only to be opened again weeks later.

According to Kate O'Day, Child and Family Services was not privy to the "unspecified new information" that caused the high-profile case to be reopened.

"As horrible as this has been, this tragedy has provided impetus to make every possible improvement in the services we provide to children," explains O'Day cautiously. "Unfortunately, at a place like Haslam, suicide is a constant possibility."

Sources within Child and Family Services say that O'Day and board members have been increasingly irritated by what they believe to be redundant and sensationalistic reporting by the local press in the wake of Hunley's death. O'Day will only say that she feels that Child and Family Services has been inaccurately portrayed as unwilling to change or openly evaluate their role in the tragedy.

"Repeating things over and over in the press doesn't help anyone. What has been characterized as something else in the wake of this tragedy is actually us doing our jobs. We have to respect the confidentiality of this child, his family, and the other children at Haslam Center," says O'Day. "And after some serious internal review, I can honestly say that there is not one single thing that our staff could have done differently to prevent this from happening. That doesn't make it any easier for anyone, but it's the truth."

O'Day says that she was pleased when major Haslam Center donor, James A. Haslam II, Chairman of the Pilot Corporation, reiterated his support for Child and Family Services in a Sept. 21 statement, in which he stated that he still believes that the center's mission to help physically and sexually abused children recover is worthwhile, and further said that he had no plans to ask that his family's name be removed from the facility in which Johnny Hunley died. Of greater relief to O'Day and Child and Family Board members, however, was the letter they received on Monday, Oct. 29 from Knoxville Chief of Police Phil Keith informing the agency that his department has officially completed its investigation of Hunley's death, ruling it a suicide.

"Evidence would suggest that the death occurred through the victim's own actions," wrote Keith. "The case file was presented to the Knox County District Attorney General for review, and it was their opinion that their was no evidence of criminality that would warrant further action by their office at this time."

Keith concluded the brief communication by commending "the staff of Haslam Center for their cooperation" during the investigation. "Needless to say," says O'Day, "we are pleased to be able to have some closure with this terrible chapter."

STILL STANDING

Kate O'Day is the first to admit that her first eight months at the helm of Child and Family Services have been challenging, occasionally frustrating, and sometimes heartbreaking. Looking at her desk, piled high with paperwork, files, reports, and budget sheets, it's clear that she has her work cut out for her.

"I still love this job, though," says O'Day. "Looking out this window, what I see is Child and Family Services' potential."

© 2001 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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