NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Robert Wells graduated from high school with a B+ average. He took honors physics in 11th grade and earned a general education diploma, even though his cerebral palsy classified him as a special education student. So he and his mother were shocked when a counselor from a state agency that is supposed to assist people with disabilities determined during his senior year that he didn’t have the intelligence necessary to succeed in college or in a career.
“I expect people in general to look at Robert and see his disability and what he can’t do,” said Robert’s mom, Cynthia Leatherwood, “but I expect VR to see what he can do.”
“VR” is shorthand for Tennessee’s vocational rehabilitation office. Each state has VR offices, which are supposed to help people with disabilities get into the workforce. Assistance can include transportation to college for people who use wheelchairs, computer screen readers for people with visual impairments or career advice.
In Tennessee, however, half of the residents found eligible for VR services in 2015 didn’t get any, according to federal data.
More than 40 percent of counselor positions are vacant. Yet the state left $14 million in federal VR dollars on the table in 2015 and again in 2016, even as the agency temporarily shut its doors to new clients. Caseloads average about 100 per counselor, but have ballooned to 200 cases in some areas, advocates say — double the recommended number.* The agency cannot show state auditors how millions in federal dollars have been spent.
State officials at the highest levels have been aware of these problems for years and have repeatedly failed to fix them, according to internal documents.
Indeed in 2016 the federal government designated Tennessee’s VR grant “high risk” for most of the year, due to the state’s repeated inability to track how much money was being spent and on what. No other state VR grant received that designation.
The impact is felt throughout the state, as aging parents struggle to help their adult children with disabilities become independent before they can no longer care for them. In Tennessee, 12 percent of people with disabilities have a bachelor’s degree, 21 percent are employed and close to a quarter live below the poverty line.
“It’s disheartening to families, and it fosters the ‘check mentality,’ ” said Carrie Guiden, executive director of The Arc of Tennessee, a nonprofit disability advocacy group, referring to government checks. “They need more counselors to efficiently meet the demand for services.”
Cynthia Leatherwood knew enough not to accept her son’s misdiagnosis by VR. She had spent 12 years as a senior education advocate at the Disability Law & Advocacy Center of Tennessee, advising other parents on how to get through the system. She tracked down the necessary paperwork for Robert, appealed his case and managed to get the evaluation reversed. It took several months, however, so even though she opened a case with VR in the fall of Robert’s senior year in high school, he started college in the fall of 2013 with none of the supports he needed, and she took out loans to cover all the costs.
“I could never have made this happen if I was working a full-time job,” she said, pointing to the hours of paperwork and constant emailing and phone calls the appeal required. “I understand why people just give up.”
Now a student at Nashville State Community College, Robert has made the dean’s list twice and has a GPA of 3.6 in his undergraduate courses.
Tennessee’s VR office has long struggled to serve its clients effectively, federal documents show. In November 2015, the federal agency that oversees and provides funding to state VR offices noted that many of the problems that led to Tennessee’s high-risk designation for 2016 were identical to those spelled out in an audit issued in December 2011, “establishing a long history of material non-compliance.”
Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam took office in January 2011, and that year brought in Raquel Hatter to lead the Department of Human Services, which oversees the state’s VR agency. Two years later, the agency was awarded more than $73 million in federal funds, but because of penalties and the state’s refusal to put up sufficient matching funds, the agency ended up with just $36 million to spend.
Officials would not say whether the state would again fail to match and thus lose federal funds in 2017. The Department of Human Services spokesperson, Stephanie Jarnagin, wrote in an email, “The state is in the process of developing and implementing a plan to ensure full alignment with WIOA [the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, a federal law passed in 2014]. This will inform how the state will pursue additional federal dollars.”
Meanwhile, current and former VR clients in Tennessee tell stories of leaving many messages for counselors and getting no response, only to be told months later that the counselors had quit. The high caseloads and rapid staff turnover have resulted in many inexperienced, overloaded counselors in some offices.
“I really wanted the job, but I only lasted three months,” said one former counselor who quit in the spring of 2016 and asked to remain anonymous because of ongoing work with VR. “The number of cases, the backlog of people who hadn’t heard from anyone for months. I was tired of being yelled at for things I couldn’t do anything about.”
Last year, Brandon Brown became the executive director of the nonprofit disability group Empower Tennessee, in Nashville. He knew the subject: In the late 1990s, when he lived in Alabama, Brown had gotten prompt help from Alabama’s VR office when he was losing his eyesight. He credits that agency with supporting him while he got his degree at the University of North Alabama. “It helped to change my life,” he said. Yet, he added, “when I started working here, right off the bat I started hearing nightmare VR stories.”
Cara Wilson lived one of those stories. Her daughter, Hannah, is on the autism spectrum and graduated from high school in 2012. Wilson, 50, was hoping to get help connecting Hannah, now 25, with a suitable job or perhaps some college courses (Hannah was speaking three languages by the time she was two years old). She and Hannah began meeting with a counselor in the Franklin city office in 2014 and one day found out, after waiting for an hour, that the counselor wasn’t there due to illness. The supervisor took them into her office and asked Wilson and her daughter if they understood the power of prayer.
“That was it. I was dumbfounded,” said Wilson, who is a single mother and also has a 13-year-old son on the spectrum. “She sent us home to pray. I didn’t know if I was supposed to pray for my counselor to get better or for services for Hannah.”
In March 2016, the office of Tennessee’s comptroller of the Treasury issued an audit of dozens of the state’s federally funded programs and gave its harshest criticism to VR, issuing what’s known as an “adverse opinion.”
“This is the first time our office has actually had to issue an adverse opinion in our state in auditing federal programs,” said Kandi Thomas, assistant director of performance and compliance. (The state first began this kind of audit in 1985.) “That to me speaks volumes.”
Among other financial issues, the audit found that VR could not provide documentation for nearly $18 million in reported expenditures and had over-reported labor hours by 27,300 in fiscal year 2015. It also found that VR spent $22 million that should have been returned to the federal government because the state was not authorized to spend the funds.
State officials said that they were addressing errors that dated back “at least 20 years.”
“It is important to note that the errors were procedural in nature and the Department has not misused or otherwise misappropriated federal funds,” stated Jarnagin.
Clients and advocates emphasize that they don’t believe the problem lies with individual counselors or their supervisors. They point to ballooning caseloads, high counselor turnover, poor training and an overall “mindset” that doesn’t prioritize meaningful employment for people with disabilities.
In January 2015, the state’s VR office stopped serving new clients for more than a month. Officials say they were “aligning internal procedures” to make sure they were in compliance with federal law, but sources inside the agency say there was a budget crisis, with a shortfall of funds. State officials contend that no existing or prospective clients felt any impact from the move, and that they continued to process new applications, but several clients and former VR counselors dispute this. They say, for example, that the number of residential clients at a training center in Smyrna dropped to about 50 from 150. Some clients’ transportation and childcare benefits were suspended, and waiting times to get appointments and to get through the process shot up. (This was the same year that Tennessee VR gave up $14 million in federal funding.)
Throughout 2015, more than 40 percent of the counselor positions at VR were vacant. This was still the case as of Sept. 30, 2016, according to Jarnagin (75 of 180 counselor positions were unfilled). She suggested that they may never be filled.
“The other vacancies are in the process of being filled,” Jarnagin wrote, “however, it should be noted that pending assessment of the new WIOA requirements all of the vacancies may or may not be filled.”
Leisa Hammett, whose daughter, Grace, is on the autism spectrum, had done a lot of research before entering the VR system. She had heard that many people felt they were being set up for failure. They would try several times with VR and then give up in frustration, “and end up sitting on the sofa, and that’s not what I wanted for my daughter.”
Grace, now 22, had been on a waiting list for 13 years at another state agency designed to give long-term assistance to people with disabilities when Hammett opened a case with VR.
“I had heard the horror stories and I thought, ‘I’ll make my own story,’ ” said Hammett, 56. “I’ll bring the honey instead of the vinegar.”
After several months of paperwork, meetings and evaluations, VR helped Grace get a trial work experience at a retail store in July. It went well: Grace enjoyed it; the store was a two-minute drive from her house; and the manager asked Grace to come in for an interview for a regular job. But two days before the interview, a VR counselor told Hammett that VR could not continue to support Grace and her employer unless Grace received long-term job coaching, which VR couldn’t provide (that’s what the agency where Grace had been on the waiting list for 13 years was for).
The red tape, delays and unreturned phone calls continued for weeks until finally, in October, VR reversed itself and said that they would support Grace giving the job a try. After getting back in touch with the store manager, Hammett received a message on Oct. 26 that the job was no longer available.
“Many of the systems that are set up to help us end up hurting us,” said Hammett.
She went back to the drawing board, making more phone calls to supervisors. She brought an outside advocate and Grace’s father to the next meeting, and Grace was offered an interview at another store, 30 minutes away from her home. Grace interviewed and was hired to work three-hour shifts three days a week for a total of nine hours a week.
“It’s a start,” said Hammett. “She needed to be engaged without further ado. I will work out transportation … more time. More paperwork. More calls. More advocacy.”
Advocates for those with disabilities say they hope that Tennessee’s VR agency will take steps to improve how it functions so that it can better serve their clients.
“There’s a stigma that people with disabilities are consumers of resources — takers, not contributors,” said Brown, of Empower Tennessee. “But if you support people with disabilities in jobs that they want to do, they will actually be much less dependent on government services.”
*Correction: An earlier version of this story implied that the statewide average caseload had become 200 clients per counselor.