By Travis Lollar, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Tennessee Department of Children’s Services must provide to the public records of children who died or nearly died after the agency investigated reports they had been abused or neglected, a Nashville judge ruled Wednesday.
Chancellor Carol McCoy gave the department 10 days to redact confidential information from documents that serve as summaries for four specific cases. The records then must be turned over to 12 news media organizations that sued under Tennessee’s public records law. The media coalition was led by The Tennessean and included The Associated Press.
In ordering the disclosure of the redacted files, McCoy said she had to weigh competing priorities of protecting the privacy of abused children versus holding the state accountable when a child dies.
McCoy determined that a child’s right to privacy is diminished after the child dies and the more important concern becomes what the state did or did not do to try to prevent the death. Attorneys for the state had argued that DCS — which initially revealed only one line of information on the cases of 151 children who died and 55 who suffered near fatal injuries since 2009 — was prohibited by state law from releasing its records.
McCoy found that while the law does protect the privacy of children and families involved with DCS, the agency’s records relating to deaths and near fatalities are subject to the public records law.
She directed DCS to file with the court an estimate of how long it will take to redact the confidential information from the summaries of the more than 200 other requested files and the costs involved.
A statement from Gov. Bill Haslam says the department will comply with the order. Haslam’s statement emphasizes that the names of children and families receiving services and of those reporting abuse will remain confidential. (Note: Full Haslam statement below)
The Tennessean in September requested records from DCS for all child fatalities and near-fatalities that occurred between Jan. 1, 2009, and June 30, 2012. In response, DCS turned over two charts containing bare-bones information on 206 cases that media attorney Robb Harvey characterized at a Jan. 8 court hearing as containing “no information of any use.”
The Tennessean then requested more detailed information about five of the cases and DCS provided about 10 more lines of information on each.
In one case, the agency was not involved with the family prior to the trauma that led to the child’s death. In each of the other four, the agency said its prior involvement was “not pertinent” to the child’s death or near death but offered no corroboration of that conclusion.
In one of those cases, the summary said 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.”
The media organizations filed suit in December, asking the courts to compel DCS to provide its actual records in each of the cases.
After the hearing, McCoy spent two weeks reviewing the files of four of the children whose records had been requested.
“The files do not appear to be in chronological order nor are they organized in any meaningful way; the individual pages are held together with large clips in plain folders,” McCoy said in her order.
The files contain referral forms that “appear to summarize how the child died and the circumstances surrounding the death of the child” as well as information on the reports of abuse or neglect and the actions taken by the state.
The referral forms McCoy reviewed in the four files each ran between 35 and 48 pages. It is these forms that she ordered released to the public.
She declined to rule on whether any other documents contained in the files must be made public.
Note: Gov. Bill Haslam’s statement on the ruling, relayed by his office:
We are currently reviewing the full decision, but it appears that the Court agrees with the state about how important our confidentiality laws are. Chancellor McCoy came to a reasonable conclusion that is in line with what the state was prepared to do before the lawsuit was filed, but wasn’t given the opportunity. By law, we have an obligation to protect the confidentiality of children and families receiving services from the Department of Children’s Services as well as those who report abuse. This is not an obligation that we can casually dismiss or ignore when we get a public records request. Disclosing confidential information is a criminal violation. As the Legislature determined when it passed the law, it is critical that we protect families and those who take the risk of reporting abuse. We have been trying to follow this direction from the outset.