NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Many of the recently released case files of children who died or nearly died after being under the supervision of the state Department of Children's Services were not filled out until months after a child's death or lacked required information, according to a newspaper's review.
The Tennessean reviewed 36 of the 42 records of cases released at a hearing on Friday by Davidson County Chancellor Carol McCoy.
In all, the documents totaled about 1,600 pages. An attorney for media organizations that sought the information was in the process of making copies for each outlet, so the files were not immediately available.
The release of the documents was the result of a lawsuit filed by a group of media organizations led by The Tennessean and including The Associated Press. The lawsuit sought access to records of children DCS was supposed to be helping. The records include children who died or nearly died from 2009 to mid-2012 who had either been placed in custody for protection, or were the subject of an active or closed investigation.
"There have been balls dropped by several individuals," McCoy said.
Many of the records were not filled out until months after a child's death, raising questions about the accuracy of DCS accounts, according to The Tennessean.
In one case, the fatality paperwork for a boy of an unknown age wasn't completed until eight months after his death.
Other records seemed to be lacking, and some were missing legally required information.
For instance, absent in at least five of the records was a "notice of fatality or near fatality" — documentation required by DCS' own policies.
The DCS files detail tragedies inside homes, at state-run facilities and hospitals, and on state roads.
In several cases of severe physical abuse, the records document gruesome and repeated abuse.
In one case in April 2012, a 5-month-old boy was found dead in a hot room inside a mobile home that was littered with dirty laundry and dog feces.
Records showed DCS had come into contact with the baby's family six times since 2006, twice pulling a child from that family into state custody.
On Friday, McCoy said the state had until May 31 to release records on 50 additional cases. Media outlets have sought information on 200 cases, and McCoy has said they will get them.
She said that after looking at the files, the media's arguments for releasing the documents were "well taken."
DCS originally said media outlets would have to pay more than $55,000 for the 200 records. The estimate included more than 7,000 miles of driving to hand-deliver documents from local offices and 600 hours for paralegals to redact the paperwork at a cost of $30 an hour. McCoy has said that DCS could charge the media to make copies but not for redacting the records. On Friday, the judge maintained that it would be reasonable for the media to pay 50 cents per page.
The state is appealing her decision.
DCS has come under fire for failing to keep some of the state's most vulnerable children safe. Former DCS Commissioner Kate O'Day resigned in February after being criticized by state lawmakers. She was replaced by Interim Commissioner Jim Henry, who has since reorganized the department. Henry has created a new division of child safety and is revising the process for reviewing child deaths.
Henry has been lauded for the progress he's made since stepping in.
"It's like night and day," said Linda O'Neal, executive director of the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth. "I've worked around DCS for more than a decade, and I believe it was at its lowest point when he stepped in there than I've ever seen it in terms of morale, accountability and need for open, positive leadership. I believe he is providing that."
Information from: The Tennessean, http://www.tennessean.com