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Regional & National

Tennessee Department of Children's Services scrutinized for lack of transparency

December 2nd, 2012 5:47 pm by Associated Press

NASHVILLE -- The embattled Tennessee Department of Children's Services is facing more scrutiny for not providing details about 31 children it had investigated that died during the first six months of this year.


In September, the agency released information that showed the numbers after repeated requests from a Democratic lawmaker and The Tennessean.


Now, the newspaper (http://tnne.ws/TCv8k7) said DCS has denied its requests to review the files involving the child fatalities.


The newspaper contends the information it has received provides limited details. Instead of providing the actual case files, the state has provided brief summaries, according to the newspaper.


Last week, The Tennessean and its counsel sent a letter to DCS calling its disclosures "woefully inadequate" and asking the agency to make records public by Dec. 18.


"The State has provided no investigative reports, fatality reviews, or task force reports, among other materials which are covered by The Tennessean's requests," noted the letter from the newspaper and Tennessean attorney Robb Harvey.


The department has said it has to weigh competing interests.


"The disclosure process for fatalities and near fatalities requires sensitivity and balance," DCS General Counsel Douglas Dimond wrote in response to the newspaper's request. "A child and family's right to privacy must be balanced against the public's right to know."


Child welfare experts say the department's unwillingness to open the agency's work to public scrutiny stands in contrast to a growing movement across the nation to increase accountability and transparency in child welfare agencies.


"The goal should be to get sufficient information to be able to evaluate whether appropriate actions were taken to protect children," said Noy Davis, a legal consultant for Washington, D.C.-based First Star, which advocates for abused and neglected children.


"The public needs to know what prior involvement the agency had with the family and was it handled properly and can anything be fixed so this doesn't happen again."


Dimond cited federal policy and said agencies that receive federal funding to prevent child abuse are not authorized to release records involving children, even if they're dead.


But in Arkansas, officials cited the same federal policy as the reason it would increase public access to information about child deaths, according to The Tennessean. That state began putting detailed information about child deaths online in a searchable public database.


And in Colorado, the public can access routine fatality reviews that discuss whether department policies or state laws were violated by caseworkers.


When DCS released the information in September, Gov. Bill Haslam called the deaths distressing, but didn't see any immediate evidence of wrongdoing by DCS.


As for the latest requests, a spokesman for Haslam said: "The policy has been reviewed, and the governor and the attorney general's office are comfortable with DCS's position."


During a budget hearing early last month, DCS Commissioner Kate O'Day asked the governor for more than $8 million that she said would be used to hire more case workers and attorneys, grant pay increases and make adjustments in caring for foster children.


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Information from: The Tennessean, http://www.tennessean.com

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