By Travis Loller, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — At its most basic level, the job of child welfare agencies is to keep children alive. Recently, the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services has had trouble keeping track of how many children died in its custody.
The disarray in the department’s records revealed in two court proceedings has child advocates wondering whether the agency’s clerical and administrative troubles could be putting children in jeopardy.
“The big picture here is that the state has to have a way to accurately track all child deaths and DCS needs a process for investigating all child deaths thoroughly. We learned recently that they don’t have either,” said Ira Lustbader, associate director of the advocacy group Children’s Rights, which works with independent monitors to keep track of how well DCS cares for foster children.
Tennessee taxpayers know next to nothing about what DCS does. Officials have for years refused to comment about how they handle cases of abuse or neglect, claiming confidentiality even after children died. What little is known has come from heavily redacted files that news organizations, including The Associated Press, have obtained under public records requests and by court order. Those requests have centered on getting information about 200 DCS investigations of abuse and neglect reports of children who later died or were seriously injured between 2009 and last year.
Recently, the agency turned over to the media details about five such cases. Although the records describe some of the actions taken by caseworkers, in most cases there is not enough information to judge whether they did everything they could to protect the children.
The five files reveal:
— A 3-year-old girl was physically abused and nearly overdosed on painkillers during a trial home visit with her grandmother in March 2009. DCS concluded, without elaboration, that its involvement with the family was “not pertinent” to what happened.
— A 15-year-old boy who was supposed to be in DCS custody died in June 2011 after a car accident with his drug-intoxicated uncle behind the wheel. The teen had gone missing two months before the accident. Nothing in the records shows whether DCS made an effort to find him.
— An 11-month-old baby living with his mother in a domestic violence shelter was found dead in January 2012. The cause of death wasn’t determined, although the boy had been sick with pneumonia previously. It was the third time DCS had been called about the family in a 5-month period. The mother and children moved to Kentucky and DCS closed the case.
— DCS was called in October 2010 when a 9-month-old baby was brought to the hospital with severe head injuries. The agency was not in contact with the family prior to the baby’s injury. The baby later died and DCS moved quickly to take her surviving sister into state custody and place the girl with relatives.
— An 8-year-old boy suffering from asthma, cardiac problems and seizures was sent from school in an ambulance in October 2010 after fainting. The caseworker found the parents were medically neglecting the child. DCS had been called in before on similar allegations. The boy and his siblings were left with their family.
DCS said in a Monday court filing that it will cost $55,000 to pull together files from the remaining cases of recent fatalities and near deaths and redact them. That estimate includes more than 14,000 miles of driving for moving the paper records from local DCS offices to Nashville and back again.
On Tuesday, with the department under fire from legislators, child advocates and the courts, DCS Commissioner Kate O’Day resigned, saying her presence had become a distraction.
Gov. Bill Haslam has continued to defend O’Day, saying she inherited many of the agency’s problems.
“Running DCS is incredibly difficult,” he said recently. “Somebody told me DCS has been in existence for like 16 years and they’ve had like 16 bad years in a row.”
The department, which was created in 1996 to better coordinate services for troubled children, is often in the news for problems ranging from juvenile detention facility escapes to long waits on hold to report child abuse.
DCS has been under federal court supervision since it settled a class-action lawsuit with Children’s Rights in 2001 over its treatment of foster care children. The agency has spent the past decade working to achieve the goals spelled out in that agreement. They include limiting the time children stay in group homes, keeping them close to their home communities, keeping siblings together and heavily involving relatives in the care of children under state oversight.
U.S. District Judge Todd Campbell and others say DCS for a while made significant progress meeting the goals, and in 2010, the judge approved an exit plan that would have put an end to court oversight in 2011. Haslam took office at the beginning of that year and installed O’Day as commissioner.
At a recent federal court hearing, Campbell said that since 2011, the $637 million agency has been moving backward.
“At this point, that exit plan seems like a distant memory,” he said.
O’Day previously served as the president and CEO of Knoxville’s Child and Family Tennessee, an $8.5 million social service agency with ties to the Haslam family. Crissy Haslam, the governor’s wife, served on the board of directors, and the Haslam Family Foundation is listed as a partner on the agency’s website.
The governor has appointed Jim Henry, who heads the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, as interim commissioner. Henry told the Senate Health and Welfare Committee on Wednesday that he planned to get to work immediately and report back within a month. He also said he would increase the agency’s transparency.
Lustbader, of Children’s Rights, said recently that the change in leadership was an opportunity to get the state’s child welfare system back on track.
Jim Wyrick — whose 6-year-old great nephew was beaten to death by a relative in October despite Wyrick’s reports of abuse to DCS — said getting it right is imperative.
“I understand they’re overworked,” he said, “but when it comes to protecting a life, when it comes to preventing a death, there are no excuses whatsoever. Obviously, death is final.”
Note: See also the Tennessean story, on how the files released reveal little about how the children died.