By Travis Lollar, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Tennessean newspaper and a group of Tennessee news organizations have asked a judge to open records from the Department of Children’s Services, arguing that the public needs information that would reveal how the state handled cases where children they had investigated died or nearly died.
First Amendment attorney Robb Harvey argued Tuesday in Davidson County Chancery Court that Tennessee’s public records law requires the agency to disclose its files on 151 children who have died since 2009. The DCS had investigated the children and confirmed neglect or abuse in 47 cases.
“The public has a strong interest in knowing what has happened to these children,” Harvey said. “They were either in state custody or DCS had an investigative record on them. They are our most vulnerable citizens, and DCS is an important agency. Without these records, there is no public accountability here.”
Deputy Attorney General Janet Kleinfelter disagreed that state law requires the records to be open. She said the law requires the department to provide limited information about the deaths.
“The general, broad rule is that these records are confidential,” she said. “That’s not to protect the state, but to protect the children and families.”
Besides The Tennessean, the news organizations joining the lawsuit against DCS are The Associated Press, the Chattanooga Times Free Press, the Knoxville News Sentinel, The Commercial Appeal, WBIR-TV, WRKN-TV, WREG-TV, WSMV-TV, the Tennessee Press Association, the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government and the Tennessee Associated Press Broadcasters.
The Tennessean originally requested records in September of all fatalities and near fatalities from January 2009 to June 2012. DCS first turned over a spreadsheet that Harvey characterized as containing “no information of any use.”
When the paper requested more information on five specific cases, DCS provided a brief summary of each. In one case, the agency was not involved with the family prior to the trauma that led to her death. In each of the other four, according to the summaries, the agency’s prior involvement with the family was “not pertinent” to the child’s death or near death.
In one of those cases, the summary indicates a 3-year-old girl was on a trial visit with her grandmother when she ingested opiates and was physically abused.
“There is no explanation of what that prior involvement was,” Harvey said in court. “…There is no way to evaluate this.”
Chancellor Carol McCoy said it was important for the public to know whether DCS was doing all it could to protect children.
“It’s important to know, not just how a child died, but how did the child get into the custody of the person (who killed the child),” she said. McCoy also said it was important to protect children and families from notoriety, especially in the cases where the child was still alive.
As part of a court order, the state turned over to McCoy all of its records relating to four of its cases.
McCoy said she would review the records and rule later on what information, if any, must be made public.