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The Department of Children’s Services is reconsidering how it reviews academic credentials submitted by employees at private care providers after The Mountain Press raised questions about diplomas submitted by an official at the Smoky Mountain Children’s Home.

The children’s home is a private, nonprofit outreach of the Church of God, but falls under state guidelines because it contracts with DCS to care for children with emotional or behavioral issues. In the past fiscal year, the home received $4.5 million from the state and cared for about 500 children, according to DCS spokesman Rob Johnson.

The Mountain Press began its investigation after receiving an unsigned letter making claims including that two administrative employees who were required to have valid, accredited degrees under the state guidelines did not actually have the proper credentials. DCS initially indicated that at least one of the employees was required to have a degree.

That employee refused to tell The Mountain Press where he obtained his degree.

However, the state provided copies of the degrees he had submitted through SMCH — a master's degree in psychology from The University of Central Kentucky, and a doctorate in human services from Corllins University. In the same email, they said it appeared he met the state requirements.

“According to our licensing staff, it appears that … have met the standards in the department's private provider manual,” Johnson said.

However, when The Mountain Press attempted to contact The University of Central Kentucky it couldn't find any record that school ever existed. It also found that Corrlins University was not accredited by an organization recognized by the United States Department of Education.

When a reporter informed DCS of those findings, the state reopened its investigation, and it is now in the process of reviewing how it considers credentials from employees at private providers that assist the state in giving foster care to children who are removed from their homes or who have other needs.

“Our expectation is that providers employ administrators, supervisors and case managers with a valid degree from an accredited four-year university. Now that this matter has come to our attention, our licensing staff is looking into it,” Johnson, the DCS spokesperson, said.

“DCS will be looking at the validity of the educational institutions in this matter – and those institutions' accreditation,” he said. “Other issues we will be looking into include the work experience required of these two positions.”

They expected that to take until at least sometime next week.

Because of the questions raised by The Mountain Press investigation, the department is also reviewing its overall policies when it comes to accepting academic accreditation through private care providers, Johnson said. He stressed that it isn't clear anyone acted improperly, but the questions appear to point to issues DCS needs to address internally.

In the past, they have counted on private providers to give accurate information on the credentials of their employees, he said. “The policy that’s been in place is, they ask for a copy of the transcript and diploma to be in the files.”

Their personnel have been looking at how they review those submissions due to the questions raised by the paper.

"We’ve got to look into our procedures,” he said. “It exposes something for us that we need to take a further look at.”

They’re especially concerned by the proliferation of online schools, and of organizations that claim to provide accreditation for those schools and brick and mortar institutions.

“In this age of online universities, it opens up some concerns we’ve got to look at," Johnson said.

For state employees, they require certified copies of transcripts, he said. But having state personnel to review that information from private providers could require more funding and more staff.

It’s also possible the state could add teeth to the policies requiring employers to review the credentials of their employees.

The definition of accreditation itself has been a thorny issue for many years, and has become more so with the advent of online schools.

There isn’t one, central clearinghouse for accreditation — there are several regional and national bodies that oversee public and private schools. The U.S. Department of Education itself does not accredit schools or programs, according to information provided on its web site.

"The Secretary of Education is required by law to publish a list of nationally recognized accrediting agencies that the Secretary determines to be reliable authorities as to the quality of education or training provided by the institutions of higher education and the higher education programs they accredit," the site says.

Many employers and schools look to that list to determine the validity of diplomas when they aren’t familiar with the institution. CHEA is an independent organization made up of degree-granting universities as a form of self regulation; its role is to oversee the accreditation process and to approve the national and regional bodies that provide accreditation.

However they address the matter, Johnson said it was an issue they’re looking at closely now.

“These are people who are responsible for kids and that’s something we take seriously."

The Mountain Press is not revealing the name of either SMCH employee at this time because it isn't clear whether they were required to have a degree. When a reporter asked Johnson Friday — two weeks after initially asking about the situation — whether he could confirm that one of the employees was required to have an accredited degree, he responded, "We are reviewing that as part of our ongoing inquiry."

SMCH maintained that the positions were created internally and didn't fall under any state guidelines or education requirements.

The Mountain Press could find no record of a University of Central Kentucky. The diploma includes a seal dated 1917, and states the school is based in Louisvlle, Ky. It states the diploma is awarded by “The Kentucky State Regents for Higher Education acting through University of Central Kentucky.”

The Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education, which oversees colleges and universities in that state, has no records of a University of Central Kentucky, according to the council’s spokesperson, Sue Patrick. “We are not aware of that institution, nor are we aware of ever having licensed it. It does not show up in our records,” Patrick said in an email exchange. The council has no record of The Kentucky State Regents for Higher Education, either, she said.

The Council for Higher Education Accreditation has no records of a University of Central Kentucky currently or in records from 1998, spokesperson Jean Franklin said. The school does not appear on a list maintained by the United States Department of Education, either. A spokesperson for the department did not return calls seeking further information for this story.

Corllins Univeristy is an online school with an active web page. However, it is also not accredited through bodies recognized by CHEA.

Asked about the school, Franklin stopped a reporter partway through spelling the name to say it is definitely not accredited and she didn’t need to look it up to know that. “That’s how often I’m asked that question,” she said.

The University of Phoenix, one of the country’s most well-known online schools, will not consider degrees from Corllins University when performing a prior learning assessment, according to the school’s web site.

Corllins also does not appear on the Department of Education’s list of accredited schools.

jfarrell@themountainpress.com