The Department of Children’s Services said this week that it will charge an estimated $34,952 to produce public records of children who died or nearly died during the past 11 months after having some contact with the child welfare agency, reports The Tennessean. It is the latest five-figure price tag DCS has attached to releasing records and comes as part of an ongoing legal battle between the agency and a coalition of the state’s news organizations. Led by The Tennessean, the coalition filed suit against DCS in December. The newspaper and DCS return to court today.
The new charges emerged Wednesday after the newspaper requested that DCS produce more recent files. The Tennessean requested DCS provide records for children who died or nearly died between July 2012 and May 2013.
Calling it a new request “not subject to the Court’s order,” DCS chief attorney Doug Dimond noted in a letter that it would turn over those records only after The Tennessean agreed to pay the nearly $34,952 estimate for records of child deaths and near deaths in an 11-month span — an estimate similar an earlier DCS effort to charge $32,225 for records that covered a much larger, 3½-year time period.
In April, Chancery Court Judge Carol McCoy ordered DCS to produce records at a cost of no more than 50 cents per copy, setting aside DCS’ efforts to charge $32,225 for records.
Previously DCS had set the price tag at $55,584 for the same records.
News release from governor’s office:
NASHVILLE – Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam today announced Debra Payne as the new commissioner of the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (DIDD) as Jim Henry becomes the permanent commissioner at the Department of Children’s Services (DCS).
Payne currently serves as deputy commissioner of DIDD and Henry as the interim commissioner of DCS.
“These two departments handle some of the state’s most difficult work concerning our most vulnerable citizens,” Haslam said. “I want to thank Debbie for taking on this new role in such a young department. Her experience and hard work will continue to serve the state of Tennessee very well.”
As deputy commissioner of program operations at DIDD, Payne has overseen two development centers, a statewide community-based service delivery system supported by more than 2,000 employees, 475 community providers and three regional offices.
“I want to thank Gov. Haslam for the opportunity to continue to serve Tennesseans with disabilities,” Payne said. “I look forward to working with this department and all of our providers in continuing to offer quality care.”
Payne has a bachelor’s degree in Psychology and Criminal Justice from Middle Tennessee State University. She has served in numerous capacities throughout her career and is credited with assembling a nationally recognized Protection from Harm system as the statewide director of Protection from Harm for DIDD.
Payne lives in Mt. Juliet with her husband, Mike, and she has three children, two step-children and one granddaughter.
Henry was the first commissioner of DIDD, which was formerly a division of the Department of Finance and Administration before becoming a state department on January 15, 2011. He has headed up both DIDD and DCS since February when he became interim commissioner of DCS.
“I am honored to serve in this capacity with Gov. Haslam,” Henry said. “We have taken important steps at DCS, and we will continue to strengthen our processes and policies as well as continue to improve the department as a whole.”
The appointments are effective June 1.
— Note: Interestingly, House Democrats have issued praise of the governor’s appointment of Henry. It’s below.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The state Department of Children’s Services will appeal a Nashville judge’s ruling ordering the agency to release records at 50-cents per page.
A group of media organizations including The Tennessean and The Associated Press is suing the agency for the records of children DCS was supposed to be helping who later died or nearly died.
DCS originally said it would cost the media more than $55,000 for about 200 records.
Last month, Chancellor Carol McCoy ordered the expedited release of 50 records. She said the agency cannot charge for redacting personal information from the records.
The Tennessean reports (http://tnne.ws/11POgPw) DCS on Friday said it will appeal. The agency wants to charge almost $9,000 for 42 records. DCS says it is unable to provide records for the other eight children.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Tennessee Department of Children’s Services has disciplined three high-ranking employees over child death record-keeping.
The Tennessean (http://tnne.ws/10Ucayd ) cited internal memos in reporting the demotion of team coordinator Lisa Lund, who appealed the penalty and was reinstated with a two-day unpaid suspension. The documents also noted the two-day suspension of Director of Child Safety Marjahna Hart, who is Lund’s supervisor. Also disciplined was Carla Aaron the executive director of child safety, who oversees both Hart and Lund. Aaron received a written warning.
The Tennessean and other news organizations, including The Associated Press, sued the department to obtain records of children who died after agency contact with them.
The three employees are on the Child Fatality Review Team, which fell behind and failed to follow department policies, leading to court-ordered reforms.
Disciplinary records cited by The Tennessean show Lund was responsible for the fatality’s team’s meeting minutes, but some had errors or were incomplete and not fully reflective of the team’s discussions. Lund tried to bring the records up to date months after media and the children’s advocacy group Children’s Rights requested them.
Aaron later found Lund left out “significant portions” of the team’s minutes before they were made public. Passages left out of the first batch of documents contain key details about how DCS caseworkers made decisions about child abuse investigations.
Lund was collecting child fatality information, putting details into a digital spreadsheet as early as January 2011. However, a timeline written by Aaron shows the accuracy of the document was questioned as early as May 2012.
A memo from Department of Children’s Services Interim Commissioner Jim Henry to Lund noted the early miscounts led to “significant negative publicity in statewide media outlets (print, television and radio), as well as additional scrutiny by . the federal court.”
In arguing her appeal, Lund wrote to Henry that the department’s reliance on a spreadsheet was “flawed.”
“The spreadsheet has not been an accurate and effective means for capturing data,” she wrote.
Henry rescinded Lund’s demotion.
Lund and Aaron declined comment for the newspaper’s report.
DSC has created a new process for tracking child fatalities, to be in place by August. It requires the department to keep thorough meeting minutes and publish an annual report of fatality review findings.
By Travis Loller, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee’s Department of Children’s Services has adopted a new plan for investigating child deaths that it says will be faster and more effective.
DCS recently faced months of criticism for failures that included not knowing how many of the children in its care had died. That culminated in the February resignation of the agency’s commissioner.
The department is involved in two lawsuits seeking more information about how it deals with child deaths and whether the current reviews are effective. The Associated Press is a party to one of those suits.
Tom Cheetham, who has been appointed to the newly created position of deputy commissioner for child health, said recently the child death reviews are of vital importance in figuring out what went wrong and preventing future deaths.
However, 2012 meeting minutes obtained by AP with a public records request, showed that most reviews by the Child Fatality Review Team at that time didn’t discuss caseworkers’ actions or make recommendations for improvements. Some employees involved in the reviews have said they were nearly useless.
The new protocol requires a rapid response to ensure the safety of siblings or other children who could be at risk.
Following that, a review must be conducted within 90 days of a death. The review also takes a “safety systems” approach used successfully in hospitals and the airline industry. That approach looks for weaknesses in the system, rather than just individual wrongdoing, and tries to put safeguards in place.
DCS is required by law to review the death or near death of any child in its custody. It also must review deaths or near deaths where there was abuse or neglect.
The new protocol adds two new categories for review — where allegations or abuse or neglect had been investigated by DCS in the previous three years and where the commissioner makes a special request for a review.
Interim Commissioner Jim Henry said recently that the nonprofit Children’s Rights, which is involved in a longstanding lawsuit with the department over its treatment of foster care children, has praised the new process, saying that it could become the “gold standard” for the nation.
The overhaul of the child death review process was ordered by the federal court in the Children’s Rights case. The new protocol was filed with the court on Thursday.
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.
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.
Gov. Bill Haslam picked a longtime adviser from his days as Knoxville mayor to examine repeated problems within the Department of Children’s Services, reports The Tennessean. In an emailed announcement Thursday evening, Haslam named his former deputy Larry Martin — currently serving as special adviser in the governor’s office — to conduct a “thorough analysis” of the $650 million child protection agency.
“I’ve told Larry that he has the full weight and resources of this office as he carries out this mission,” Haslam said in the prepared statement.
DCS Commissioner Kate O’Day has come under increasing scrutiny in recent months. Her department has been criticized for withholding details on children’s deaths, failing to notify state lawmakers about deaths in their districts as required by law and allowing calls to a child abuse hotline to go unanswered.
The Dickson County sheriff and children’s advocates also accused the agency of mishandling reports of severe child abuse. The agency’s computer system has failed to track children, and its youth detention centers have experienced spikes in violence.
…Between 2006 and 2011, Martin, 65, served as deputy to Haslam and to Haslam’s successor, Mayor Daniel Brown. Under Haslam, Martin worked as the city’s senior finance director.
He rejoined Haslam last May to serve as a special assistant overseeing the implementation of one of the governor’s signature pieces of legislation — the Tennessee Excellence and Accountability Management Act, or TEAM Act, which overhauled many of Tennessee’s civil service rules.
Before working for government, Martin worked for more than three decades in banking. His last position was chief operating officer for First Tennessee Financial Services. He joined the Knoxville mayor’s office after his retirement from banking.
Speaker of the House Beth Harwell and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey plan legislative hearings on the Department of Children’s Services when the General Assembly reconvenes late this month, according to the Tennessean. Republican leaders will ask lawmakers to “examine our existing statutes and to identify laws and innovative practices in other states that may be good ideas for Tennessee,” Harwell said in a prepared statement.
The plans come in response to an earlier call by Democratic Rep. Mike Turner to hold an investigation of how DCS operates.
Republican Rep. Jon Lundberg of Bristol said he would ask his own legislative committee to examine the work of the state agency. He said he was prompted by a series of recent revelations in news stories in The Tennessean and in public reports released by watchdog groups.
“I have lots of questions, and I’m going into this open to hearing from across the board how DCS operates and what is going on over there,” said Lundberg, who co-chairs the Civil Justice Committee. “We have a very steep learning curve and a short time to get there.”
O’Day said on Tuesday that her agency is responding.
“Our philosophy with the legislature, from the very beginning, has been that the more that they know about what we do, the better,” O’Day said. “So we’ve done numerous visits with our legislators, to our various field offices, and plan to continue that open dialogue. We’re ready to talk to anybody at any time and answer whatever questions they have.”
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A special team within the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services fell behind in reviewing child deaths and ignored its own policies, according to DCS records and staff interviews.
The information was given to The Tennessean (http://tnne.ws/VUnPrw) on Friday by department spokeswoman Molly Sudderth.
The newspaper is among a number of news organizations — including The Associated Press — suing DCS to obtain more detailed records the agency refuses to release.
The organizations argue the public needs information that would reveal how the state handled cases where children DCS had investigated died or nearly died.