Audit gives poor marks to Tenn. DCS

Hank Hayes • May 13, 2007 at 11:36 AM

The Tennessee Department of Children's Services (DCS) failed to complete child abuse investigations in 50 percent of reviewed cases and did not notify authorities about severe child abuse in most cases, a state Comptroller's audit has found.

The audit, which assessed the operations of DCS' Child Protective Services Division, determined the division is not completely adhering to policies and procedures governing probes into children's deaths.

The audit also noted that data on children's deaths from the Department of Health does not match similar data from DCS.

DCS, with about 5,000 employees, had a budget of $600 million in fiscal year 2006. Its Child Protection Services Division has a daunting task: responding to more than 37,000 reports of child abuse and neglect each year. Due to the seriousness of the issue, the audit focused on the division's procedures.

The audit zeroed in on division cases involving children's deaths occurring from Jan. 1, 2004, to Sept. 30, 2006. During that time, there were a total of 153 deaths, with 59 of those determined by the division to be caused by abuse or neglect.

Auditors did not see a general pattern of division staff failing to use available information to prevent a child's death, but in the "vast majority" of 61 child death cases, the division became involved in probing the issues that caused the child's death only after the death.

"In only one of the 61 cases were we able to determine that (Child Protective Services) might have been able to take actions to prevent a death..." the audit said. "Although obviously not all proven allegations of neglect and/or abuse are conclusive proof that future children's deaths (or serious abuse and/or neglect) will occur, (Child Protective Services) should consider whether the assessment methods it uses can be improved to more accurately predict future harm to children involved in its investigations."

The audit acknowledged DCS can't control delays by third parties in reporting allegations of child abuse, but pointed out those delays have potential serious repercussions.

One such delay involving a case in East Tennessee may have resulted in the perpetrator not being charged with murder, the audit said.

"A pregnant mother had been taking illegal drugs ... resulting in the premature birth of her child," the audit said. "However, the hospital delayed reporting the death to (Child Protective Services) and law enforcement officials for three days. ... The police detective investigating the case stated that ‘the hospital dropped the ball on this case' and that the mother could not be charged ‘with anything.' The detective asserted that if an autopsy had been performed, the district attorney could have brought charges against the mother for second-degree murder."

DCS concurred with the audit's findings and pledged to work toward reconciling policies and procedures.

For more information go to www.comptroller.state.tn.us.

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