By Lucas Johnson, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Gov. Bill Haslam denied Thursday that the state had lost a case in which a judge ruled that the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services must provide the public records of children who died or nearly died after the agency investigated reports they’d been abused or neglected.
The Republican governor told reporters after speaking at an annual meeting of The Associated Press and Tennessee Press Association that the state is simply adhering to a Nashville judge’s ruling last month that it provide the records.
“We’re doing what the chancellor asked us to do,” he said. “We did not lose this lawsuit. I want to be really clear.”
The department has been battling news organizations seeking information about how DCS handled some 200 cases of children. The Tennessean newspaper, The Associated Press and 10 other news organizations sued DCS in state court in December to obtain case records.
In ordering the disclosure of the redacted files, Chancellor Carol 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 called the state’s argument that it needed more time “unpersuasive” and 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.
The state has said that cost will be about $56,000.
Interim DCS Commissioner Jim Henry told reporters on Wednesday that the cost “seems a little high,” and that it’s on his agenda to review.
As for Henry’s comment, Haslam said Thursday: “I think that was Jim’s personal opinion.”
Henry replaced Kate O’Day, who resigned on Tuesday under scrutiny of how her agency handled the cases. Haslam has defended O’Day’s decision to step down, and continued to do so Thursday, referencing what she wrote in her resignation letter.
“She said in the letter, ‘I’ve become a distraction. The focus here is on me, not on helping serve kids,'” Haslam said.