Tenn. state senator ‘quite troubled’ that DCS pays adoption subsidies but doesn’t check on adopted children

State Senator Ken Yager (R-Kingston) is on a mission to make sure the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services (DCS) performs welfare checks on adopted children whose parents receive adoption subsidy payments from the state of Tennessee.
Michael and Shirley Gray
Michael and Shirley Gray(WVLT)
Published: Jun. 30, 2020 at 5:34 PM EDT|Updated: Jun. 30, 2020 at 10:33 PM EDT
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) - State Senator Ken Yager (R-Kingston) is on a mission to make sure the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services (DCS) performs welfare checks on adopted children whose parents receive adoption subsidy payments from the state of Tennessee.

Sen. Yager became interested in the process and started communicating with DCS after investigators found the bodies of two adopted children on two different East Tennessee properties.

Michael and Shirley Gray are accused of abusing, starving and eventually burying two of their adopted children, according to warrants filed by the Knox County Sheriff’s Office and Roane County Sheriff’s Office.

A young girl, 13-year-old Sophie Heather Gray, was found buried behind a home in Roane County where the parents, Michael and Shirley Gray, lived with their four adopted children. A young boy, Jonathan Gray, was found buried behind a home in Knox County’s Halls neighborhood where the couple previously lived with their five adopted children and their biological adult son.

The couple has three surviving underage adopted children who have since been removed by the state. Investigators said some of those children detailed horrible living conditions like getting locked in cages and fed only bread and water for extended periods of time.

“They were always wanting somebody to love them,” a neighbor told me of adopted children who lived nearby. One was found buried on the property. A dog cage with a reversed lock and peep hole was pulled from this home in Halls, according to a warrant. Investigators say that’s where a couple’s adopted children were confined and starved. ⬇️⬇️

Posted by Amanda Hara on Saturday, May 30, 2020

“I just don’t want this to ever happen again. It’s such an abhorrent crime. It’s hard not to get emotional when you talk about it, that two children were killed, and candidly, those who were living envied those who had died, when you consider the barbaric conditions in which they were imprisoned,” Sen. Yager told WVLT News Anchor Amanda Hara.

According to the warrant, the Grays continued to receive adoption benefits from the state of Tennessee even after the children died.

On June 8, Hara filed a shocking report that revealed Tennessee does not check in with families once an adoption is finalized but does continue to pay out monthly financial benefits.

Commissioner Nichols said that the state has no legal authority to monitor a child after adoption unless an allegation of abuse or neglect is levied.

“Once a court finalizes an adoption, the parents become the legal parents of the children in every sense of the word. Without an allegation of abuse or neglect, the state has no legal authority to monitor the children any further, just as the state would not have the authority to do so for any other family,” according to Tennessee Department of Children’s Services Commissioner Jennifer Nichols.

According to a warrant, Michael and Shirley Gray never reported the deaths of their adopted children yet they “continued to receive adoption payments from the State of Tennessee as well as other assorted financial benefits on behalf of the deceased children.” The warrant further states the couple received additional benefits for the remaining children who were “confined in the basement of the Roane County home.”

“My mission is to fix a problem that I see in the current statutes that govern the adoption subsidy payments. I was just shocked by what I heard about the couple that adopted and then abused their former foster children that allegedly resulted in two deaths,” he told WVLT News Anchor Amanda Hara.

Sen. Yager said he plans to file legislation in January to ensure that DCS performs in-person welfare checks on any adopted child receiving subsidy payments.

The Grays received $3,000 a month in subsidy payments for four of their five children, according to Sen. Yager. That amounts to $36,000 a year.

According to DCS, the amount an adoptive parent or family can receive from Tennessee varies. Per child per day, the amount can range anywhere from $25.33 up to $60 in cases where extreme medical or mental health care is required, according to a spokesperson for Tennessee DCS.

“The subsidy amount is approximately the same as foster parents receive to reimburse them for the costs associated with caring for foster children. When a child is adopted from foster care, the subsidy is paid at least through the child’s 18th birthday, and in some special needs cases until the child is 21-years-old,” said Commissioner Nichols.

“There’s a loophole here that needs to be closed, a problem here that needs to be fixed, and I intend to do everything I can to see that happens,” said Sen. Yager.

When asked whether DCS was receptive to his ideas for changing policy, Sen. Yager said it was hard to gauge considering all communication had been conducted through email, “They have been very forthcoming and informative about what the law and what the regulations are.”

In the Roane County case, both Michael and Shirley Gray face eight charges: two counts of Especially Aggravated Kidnapping; two counts of Aggravated Child Abuse; three counts of Aggravated Child Neglect and a single charge Abuse of a Corpse.

As of the filing of this report, charges had not been filed in the Knox County case.

How Tennessee Vets Foster Parents

As a ‘foster to adopt’ state, families must foster for at least six months before qualifying for adoption. From there, a spokesperson for DCS said a rigorous pre-screening process ensues, including background checks, fingerprinting, and home visits conducted by the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services.

“This comprehensive process includes a state and national criminal history fingerprint check through the TBI and FBI; a financial background check in order to validate a prospective foster parent’s financial ability to care for a child or children; and a home study to be completed by a licensed social services agency professional,” said Commissioner Nichols.

Foster parents are required to complete an eight hour adoption-prep training, on top of 36 hours of foster parent training, and foster for six months, according to a spokesperson. Those steps must be completed before an adoption is approved.

Before an adoption is complete, DCS will periodically check in on a child during its time with a foster family. Case managers are required to visit at least twice a month, including the time leading up to an adoption, according to Commissioner Nichols.

After a family commits to adopting through DCS, they are required to attend a training program offered by Maryville-based Harmony Family Center.

The Adoption and Guardianship Preparation Training (AGPT) is an 8-hour course developed by Harmony in 2007. In 2019, more than 1,100 caregivers attended the course, according to CEO Kate Trudell.

She told WVLT News Anchor Amanda Hara that the AGPT courses became mandatory in the last three years and a search of records revealed Michael and Shirley Gray did not receive any services from Harmony.

Once adoption is complete, the state is largely removed from the equation.

“DCS has strong adoption support services in place for adoptive families. However, these services are available only at the request of the adoptive family. It is the decision of the adoptive parents whether or not to accept support services,” said Commissioner Nichols.

Some of those optional, post-adoption therapeutic and educational services are offered by Harmony Family Center in Knoxville to families that have adopted through the welfare system. The services are free and include in-home therapy, parent education training, crisis intervention, case management, support groups, animal assisted therapy and family camps.

In 25 years, Harmony has served more than 125,000 children and families. On average, it services about 800 families per month.

While the services provided by Harmony Family Center are not mandatory, Trudell points out they are beneficial. “The national adoption disruptive rate is between 10-12 percent, while the disruption rate among post-adoptive families who have received services through our ASAP (Adoption Support and Preservation) program is one percent,” said Trudell.

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