Smoky Mountain Children's Home dissolves position

DCS: Foster care director lacked proper credentials
Dec. 04, 2013 @ 11:04 PM

The Smoky Mountain Children’s Home dissolved the position of director of foster care Tuesday when Tennessee Department of Children’s Services found the man holding the position didn’t have proper academic credentials. The findings come after an investigation that started with questions from The Mountain Press.

DCS spokesman Rob Johnson informed The Mountain Press Tuesday that the department had determined SMCH’s foster care director, Don Baker, didn’t meet state guidelines despite degrees he had submitted to the state that seemed to indicate he had the proper qualifications.

“After a careful review, we determined that Don Baker’s academic credentials did not meet the DCS licensing requirements for a casework supervisor within a child-placing agency,” Johnson said.

The children’s home is an outreach of the Church of God, but falls under DCS guidelines for private providers of child care because it contracts with the state to care for children. Those guidelines include academic requirements for certain employees. The Mountain Press began investigating Baker’s credentials after receiving an unsigned letter saying he didn’t have the academic credentials required for his position.

Under the state’s guidelines, a casework supervisor is required to have a master’s degree in social work and two years experience in the provision of foster care or adoption services, or an equivalent degree in a related field and three years of experience. Baker had given the state a master’s degree in psychology from the University of Central Kentucky in May of 1998, and a doctor of arts in human services from Corllins University, an online school, in 2012.

After more than a week of investigation The Mountain Press could not find any record of the University of Central Kentucky, and found that Corllins University is not accredited through accrediting organizations recognized by the United States Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

DCS had initially said it appeared Baker had the proper qualifications, but started a new review after The Mountain Press relayed its findings. That second review resulted in Tuesday’s decision.

According to information from the DCS, officials at the Children’s Home said the position of foster care director would be dissolved, and all of its supervisory responsibilities will be transferred to another director.

“We understand that Mr. Baker will remain an employee and that he plans to start working immediately toward a degree from an accredited institution,” Johnson said.

Dan Boling, program director of the children’s home, confirmed Tuesday that DCS had informed him of the findings.

“I’m in total agreement with DCS’s rulings,” he said.

Boling had previously told The Mountain Press that the children’s home believed Baker’s position was internally created and didn’t fall under state guidelines. He said he had passed the matter on to his human resources department.

Asked Tuesday if he had learned anything in the meantime to make him change his position, he repeated that he was in agreement with the DCS rulings, without directly addressing the question

When a reporter asked what changes they were making, he replied, “We’re going to be in compliance with them and we are going to do what we have to do,” he said.

Baker didn’t respond to a message seeking comment for this story. Donnie Smith, who oversees the children’s home and other programs for the Church of God, also did not return a message to his office Tuesday.

When The Mountain Press first contacted Baker about the matter several weeks ago, he refused to divulge where he went to school, but he acknowledged he’d submitted his degrees to the state and said he fell under their requirements and had met them.

DCS initially said it appeared Baker met the proper requirements, and supplied copies of the degrees he submitted from University of Central Kentucky and Corllins University.

It reopened its investigation after a reporter from The Mountain Press told department spokesman Johnson about the newspaper’s findings concerning those schools. Johnson acknowledged they generally counted on private providers to check out the academic credentials of employees.

The department is reconsidering that policy in light of this incident. “DCS is still working on updating its specific licensing requirements, in order to acknowledge the rapidly growing field of online degree programs,” he said. “In principle, however, we plan to identify an authoritative database of accredited institutions and require private providers to ensure that their employees have the proper academic credentials.”

The DCS investigation included a look at whether Baker’s position required a degree. Johnson had first provided a copy of qualifications for program director; he later acknowledged the state was having to review whether DCS required an accredited degoree for the position of foster care director.

Officials apparently determined that, under their definitions, his duties made him a case work supervisor. In an earlier conversation, Boling said those duties included coordinating evaluations for homes where people wanted to serve as foster parents.

Baker, in a conversation in November, said his master’s degree came though a pilot program at a school in Kentucky.

“I went through the program when I lived in the commonwealth of Kentucky,” he said. “I moved there for a few years to start and build a church ... I considered it a blessing to find anywhere I could go to school that was affordable to me.”

He said he didn’t have any contact information for the school. “It has been years since I have even thought about the little place.”

Federal officials and officials with the state of Kentucky said they had no records concerning the University of Central Kentucky.

Asked about his degree from Corrlins Univeristy, he first said he believed it was accredited. The school’s website mentions accreditation from two bodies, but neither is recognized as an accrediting agency by the U.S. Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, an independent organization made up of degree-granting universities as a form of self regulation.

“I am not aware of the info you just stated,” he said at the time.

The Smoky Mountain Children’s Home has existed for more than 90 years. It provides on-campus and off-campus programs for orphans and children assigned to it through DCS.

In the past fiscal year, the home received $4.5 million from the state and cared for about 500 children for DCS, according to numbers provided by Johnson.

jfarrell@themountainpress.com