NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The state Department of Children’s Services was ordered Wednesday to give the media records from the case files of 50 children who died or nearly died after the agency became involved with them.
Davidson County Chancellor Carol McCoy also ordered the state to bear the cost of redacting identifying information from the records. The media organizations will pay the cost of making copies.
In September, The Tennessean requested the records of all the children involved with DCS who had died or nearly died between 2009 and mid-2012. The state produced only bare-bones summaries and later acknowledged it did not know how many children had died during that period.
In December a group of media organizations, led by The Tennessean and including The Associated Press, sued for access to the records. McCoy in January ordered the state to redact and turn over records from four cases and to produce an estimate of the cost to redact records in the remaining 200-or-so cases.
The state first said it would cost more than $55,000 to produce the remaining records, but later reduced that to a little over $34,000.
At the Wednesday hearing, the media groups asked McCoy to expand which records the department has to turn over and to order DCS to waive the fee.
McCoy did grant a partial expansion of the records request and ordered that the media groups must pay only a 50-cent-per-page copying cost. She told DCS to produce records from the 50 most recent files for her review by May 3.
By Travis Loller, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Department of Children’s Services is reorganizing following problems that led to the recent resignation of Commissioner Kate O’Day.
One of the biggest changes includes teaming with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to better train child abuse investigators.
“The first responsibility of DCS, whatever happens, should be to make sure the child is safe,” Interim Commissioner Jim Henry said Monday at a news conference.
Henry said district attorneys sometimes are unwilling to prosecute a case because of problems with the investigation.
Investigations were formerly a part of Child Protective Services, a program that was under the same division as foster care and adoption. Those investigations will now be under a new division called Child Safety, which will have its own deputy commissioner in Scott Modell.
DYERSBURG, Tenn. (AP) — The state Department of Children’s Services has been found liable in the deaths of a teenager and her foster father and the injuries to her foster mother after the biological father went on a shooting rampage.
Dyersburg resident Susan Randolph told The Tennessean (http://tnne.ws/14n0BzY) that she and her husband, Todd Randolph, agreed to temporarily take in the 15-year-old daughter of neighbor Chris Milburn at his request on July 30, 2009.
Susan Randolph said Chris Milburn told her husband there was an accusation of inappropriate touching. Randolph said she thought that perhaps there had been some misunderstanding between Chris Milburn and his daughter, and she was never told the extent of the allegations.
It came out in court that Stevie Milburn had reported that her father had given her a black eye that kept her out of school for a week, a burst lip, a smack in the face, a punch in the face with a closed fist and a whipping with a belt. She also said he sexually assaulted her.
DCS also learned of an earlier domestic violence charge against Chris Milburn and a prior DCS report that included the notation that Milburn “acts like a pedophile and dominates his child.”
By Lucas Johnson, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The man who took over Tennessee’s embattled child welfare agency said Tuesday he’s addressing problems that have plagued it for years, including having staffers personally call him when a child death is reported.
Tennessee Department of Children’s Services interim commissioner Jim Henry and key members of his staff spoke before the House Government Operations Committee about improvements made since Henry stepped in about a month ago. Henry replaced Kate O’Day, who resigned at the end of last month.
The agency has been heavily scrutinized for years and has come under even more fire recently because of the number of children who have died while in its custody. More than 200 Tennessee children lost their lives or nearly died since 2009 after having some contact with the agency. The exact number isn’t clear.
So far this year, six children have died in state custody.
Henry said changes include having regional administrators call his personal cellphone when a child dies and immediately notifying lawmakers in that child’s district. He said a death review process has been established and cases are checked monthly.
A total of 802 children died in Tennessee in 2011, with a third of those deaths a result of abuse, murder, drowning, suicide, suffocation or other preventable causes, according to Department of Health data reported by The Tennessean. State health officials note it is the fewest number of child deaths they have had to report in the past five years. Still, the new data are unlikely to shake Tennessee’s grim foothold on the top 10 list for states in the country with the highest child death rates.
Children are more likely to die in Tennessee before they reach their 18th birthday than in most other states, surpassing the national average of 52 deaths for every 100,000 children.
In Tennessee, the average was closer to 66 deaths per 100,000 children, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data for 2010, the most recent year that national comparison data are available. By 2011, child deaths claimed 60 of every 100,000 Tennessee children.
A federal judge on Friday said he has become impatient with the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services’ inability to accurately count child deaths and issued firm deadlines for officials to make improvements, according to The Tennessean. Judge Todd J. Campbell ordered DCS to give child fatality records to a child advocacy watchdog group within seven days and to overhaul the department’s child fatality review process within 90 days.
And the judge again questioned the reliability of department data and said time is running out for DCS to fix the computer system it uses to keep records.
“This is too important to keep pushing deadlines down the road,” Campbell said. The judge scheduled the hearing months ago to check in on DCS, which must improve its care of foster children, according to a federal court order. A class action lawsuit known as “Brian A.” prompted a settlement agreement in 2001 and set up a team of experts to monitor DCS.
The department made enough progress by 2010 that the judge agreed to an exit plan under which DCS would be released from court-ordered monitoring. But recent problems have concerned the judge and the New York-based child advocacy group Children’s Rights, which joined with Tennessee attorneys to sue in 2000.
Problems continue to surface. A day before the hearing, state officials disclosed that the deaths of nine children in state custody had gone unreported for months — raising the number of custodial deaths in the past two years to 25. The revelation spurred Gov. Bill Haslam to appoint special adviser Larry Martin to probe the department.
The Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference, which represents the state’s 31 DAs, has issued the organization’s 2013 legislative agenda, reports the Commercial Appeal. Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich is quoted. “In 2013, we’re focused on continuing our push to protect our kids, strengthen sentencing guidelines and fight drugs,” Weirich said. “If the legislature approves these proposed changes, I’m confident we will be able to accomplish these goals and more.”
The district attorneys are asking lawmakers to require people convicted of aggravated child neglect to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences before they are eligible for parole — the same as for aggravated child-abuse cases — rather than the current 30 percent minimum.
“Right now, there are individuals who are convicted of extremely serious child neglect — cases in which children suffer as much as those who are victims of physical abuse — who end up serving very short sentences. We need to change that to send a message that the state takes all offenses against children seriously, even if they fall short of the legal definition of abuse,” said Guy Jones, deputy director of the conference and its chief lobbyist.
DAs also want changes in state law that would allow them to prosecute a serial child-sexual abuser with a single trial even if the abuses occurred in multiple judicial districts. Currently, a defendant charged with multiple counts of child-sexual abuse involving different victims in different Tennessee jurisdictions must be tried separately in each of those jurisdictions.
– Note: See also the Kingsport Times-News, quoting Sullivan County DA Barry Staubus.
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.
News release from House Democratic Caucus:
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner has sent a letter to Governor Haslam, Speaker Harwell and Lt. Gov. Ramsey requesting they convene a joint government operations committee meeting to investigate the Department of Children’s Services refusal to release records relating to the abuse and death of children under their care and reports that they have returned children to homes where there is evidence of abuse.
“The mission of the Department of Children’s Services is too important for them to operate in secrecy,” said Chairman Turner. “It is well past time that we have a full accounting of problems within the agency, so we can determine how best to move forward and fix them.”
Multiple Tennessee media outlets have recently been denied an open records request that sought to shed some light into the tragic deaths of children under the agency’s supervision. This follows news that the agency failed to disclose these deaths as required by law. The desire for more information stems from reports that the Department of Children’s Services has failed to protect children from abuse by allowing victims of child abuse to remain in the custody of their abusers.
“If Governor Haslam is unwilling to take the appropriate steps to protect the lives of children, then we must force him,” said Rep. Sherry Jones, who has been a leading advocate in the effort to protect children in DCS custody. “Over the past two years the leadership of DCS has moved our state backward in respect to disclosure of records and in protecting children from child abuse. I hope that my Republican colleagues will join me in pushing for more transparency and accountability that will move DCS forward.
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.