Children in Rutherford County have been arrested and jailed at rates unparalleled in the state. We’re investigating how that happened — and other ways the justice system there singles out children.

This article was produced for ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network in partnership with WPLN/Nashville Public Radio. Sign up for Dispatches to get stories like this one as soon as they are published.

A bill that would strengthen oversight of Tennessee’s juvenile detention centers has failed, despite a concerted push for reform after multiple county-run facilities were found to be locking children alone in cells.

The bill was introduced in the state legislature in January after a WPLN and ProPublica investigation last year reported that seclusion was used as punishment for minor rule infractions like laughing during meals or talking during class. One facility, the Richard L. Bean Juvenile Service Center in Knoxville, was particularly reliant on seclusion, in violation of state laws and standards that banned the practice as a form of discipline.

“If we can’t get behind independent oversight and transparency as a good thing in the juvenile justice system, there will never be meaningful accountability and our system can’t change for the better,” Zoe Jamail of Disability Rights Tennessee said. “So it is frustrating and disappointing.”

The oversight bill aimed to give an independent agency the power to require changes at facilities that violate state standards, effectively forcing Tennessee’s Department of Children’s Services to act.

Currently, the ombudsman at that agency, the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth, responds to family complaints about DCS but doesn’t have enforcement power. Under the bill, if a facility didn’t follow those recommendations, the department would have been required to suspend the site’s license or stop placing kids there until the violations are fixed.

It was sponsored by two prominent Republicans and one Democrat, and a version of the legislation had the department’s backing. It wouldn’t have cost the state any money, according to the bill’s fiscal note.

Usually in Tennessee, that would be a recipe for a bill to become a law. But the legislation was sent to what is called “summer study,” a maneuver that allows lawmakers to continue working on the legislation but is typically used to effectively kill a bill. Its sponsors and child welfare advocates are baffled as to why.

“I can’t think of a reason for not wanting oversight unless there’s something to hide,” Jamail said.

One of the first signs of trouble occurred when the bill was heard in a House subcommittee in late March. State Rep. Andrew Farmer, an East Tennessee Republican who was not involved in the bill’s creation, introduced an amendment that removed the robust oversight powers. That move boiled the bill down to little more than one sentence, requiring DCS to publish its inspection reports online.

Rep. Andrew Farmer, R-Sevierville, said he wanted to repeal a law that strictly limited the seclusion of children at juvenile detention centers. Credit: George Walker IV/AP

After the hearing, Farmer said he was unfamiliar with WPLN and ProPublica’s reporting on the Bean Center that bill sponsors said inspired the legislation. He said he opposed the original legislation because of how much state oversight it introduced, and he criticized the sponsors for not clearly explaining the reasons for the bill.

“I think there was a failure to communicate the issue that they seek to address and establish a reason why they went from a county-run facility in Knoxville to try to have this sort of intrusion all over the state,” Farmer said.

State Sen. Heidi Campbell, a Nashville Democrat and sponsor of the original bill, said she believes part of the reason the bill failed was the influence of Jason Crews, who runs privately operated juvenile detention and residential treatment centers in Tennessee. Campbell and others working on the bill said a lobbyist for Crews’ business spoke to them about removing privately run facilities from the bill. One amendment filed in the House would have done just that.

“It really does feel like this is about the lobbying influence that Jason Crews has in the legislature,” Campbell said.

Crews is the executive director of Middle Tennessee Juvenile Detention Center as well as Wayne Halfway House, a company that also operates residential treatment centers for kids in Tennessee and Florida.

WPLN and ProPublica reached out to Crews for comment. His spokesperson emailed a statement from Nicole Polk, the government affairs director with Wayne Halfway House.

Polk said the company had concerns about the bill giving regulatory power to an independent agency “without more extensive consideration about whether it’s a good idea and how such a step would affect accountability in the governance of youth corrections in Tennessee. The legislature clearly agrees with that concern.”

In addition to lobbying against the bill, Crews has donated to the campaigns of the lawmakers who sunk the bill’s chances. Rep. William Lamberth, a Republican from Middle Tennessee who sent the bill to “summer study,” has received $13,000 from Crews’ super PAC, Focus PAC, since 2021. Farmer received $4,500 from the PAC since 2021. One of Crews’ facilities, Mountain View Academy, is in Farmer’s district.

“Like many individuals and businesses, we participate in the electoral and policy arena,” Polk said. “We support strong leaders to serve our state, and do so through donations that are fully disclosed, within legal requirements.”

Lamberth did not respond to requests for comment. “No contribution I have accepted will ever influence my vote on a piece of legislation,” Farmer said in an emailed statement.

Farmer was one of the sponsors of the 2021 bill that limited the time children could be kept in seclusion in juvenile detention centers and put in place some of the state rules that the Bean Center was violating. Despite that, after that House hearing in March, he told WPLN that he thought that law should be repealed altogether, saying that in retrospect, he thinks facilities should have more discretion.

“Frankly, if it was up to me, I would reverse the seclusion law that we passed and be sure that youth that are violent, that attack guards, that attack other children, can be put into a place by themselves until they calm down,” Farmer said.

Richard Bean, superintendent of the center that bears his name, did not respond to requests for comment.

Research over the past decade has shown that isolating children doesn’t improve their behavior — if anything, it could worsen it. Solitary confinement can cause psychological impacts like depression, anxiety or psychosis, and young people are especially vulnerable to those effects. The majority of suicides inside juvenile correction facilities in the United States happen when a child is isolated.

State Sen. Kerry Roberts, a Republican from Middle Tennessee who chairs the government operations committee, was one of the reform bill’s sponsors. He said that in his years in the Senate, he has never seen a lawmaker who wasn’t involved in the original bill introduce an amendment that completely gutted it — let alone a member of his own party.

“Anytime you have a supermajority, you know, you’re going to have factions develop,” Roberts said. “That’s just part of the dynamic of where we are in Tennessee today.”

Roberts said he’s both surprised and disappointed that it got killed, and he doesn’t understand why.

But Roberts said the bill’s failure this year is not going to stop him from reforming the system.

“I’m just going to take the lemons and try and make some lemonade,” he said. “And we’ll see if we can’t come up with an even better, more robust inspection program than what we proposed.”