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.
Since January, the Department of Children’s Services has reported that 73 children who were brought to its attention died in 2012, but the state now says the correct number is 105, reports The Tennessean. DCS also miscalculated the number of children who died in 2011. In October, the agency said 47 children had died after having some contact with DCS, but now the state says the correct number for that year is 91.
DCS has now revised upwards the number of such child fatalities at least five times since The Tennessean asked for the data in September, prompting frustration as well as a measure of skepticism from lawmakers reached on Monday.
“Can we rely on these numbers? I don’t know. I hope we can,” said state Sen. Jim Summerville, a Republican from Dickson. “It’s strange to me that a big department with lots of professional help keeps having to change their report. Counting children should not be that hard. Counting dead children is an awful thing, but the department must do it right.”
State Rep. Sherry Jones, a Nashville Democrat, began requesting child fatality data in July. On Monday, Jones — like Summerville — said she still had not received an accurate accounting from DCS, asking that the numbers be read to her over the phone.
“This is unbelievable, unprofessional,” Jones said. “Unless the numbers are being manipulated and no one can keep track, they should know these numbers every day, and I’m surprised they don’t.”
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.
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.
Gov. Bill Haslam is defending the $55,884 bill to media for copies of records from the Department of Children’s Services, reports Chas Sisk. (Haslam said he) was not aware of the tab for records, which was tallied after a judge ruled that the records had to be made public, until it was printed in the newspaper.
But Haslam said the sum was not meant to discourage news organizations from obtaining the records. He said line items — such as $500 for whiteout, nearly 1,800 labor hours to review the records and more than 14,000 miles to transport records around the state — did not seem extraordinary given that the records are scattered in various DCS offices.
“I’ll be glad to pay the $500 if Gannett is struggling,” Haslam quipped, referring to the parent company of The Tennessean, which led the public records lawsuit.
“We did what the judge asked us to do. The judge said tell them what it would cost. We did exactly what the judge said.”
Meanwhile, Jack McElroy gives some perspective on the bill. Among the expenses is the cost of hand-delivering each file from local offices to regional offices then to state headquarters at the rate of $0.47 per mile, so the files can be copied in Nashville. The original files then will be hand-delivered back to the offices where they originated. The total mileage is estimated at 7,102 miles, and, of course, employees will have to accompany the files earning $16.39 an hour on those long drives.
In Nashville, the relevant portions of the files will be extracted and photocopied, then those portions will be redacted using white-out tape. which “unfortunately, can be easily removed,” so the files will have to be copied again. The redaction will take 600 rolls of white-out tape, by the way, at the cost of $0.86/roll.
In all, the state estimates it will take 1,798.5 hours of state labor to provide the public with copies of the 200 summary files, about nine hours per file. The total “good faith” estimate of the cost to the media of the project is $55,884.55.
I guess if more children die, the cost will go up.
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.
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.
State transportation officials have yet to decide whether they’ll keep using 151 electronic highway signs across Tennessee to show a daily count of traffic fatalities in 2013, according to the Tennessean. Kendell Poole, director of the Governor’s Highway Safety Office, said the signs are a “victory for saving lives,” despite fatalities this year topping 1,000 and surpassing last year’s total. He favors using them again in 2013.
…As of Friday, there were 1,002 traffic deaths this year, 69 more than at the same point last year. In 2011, there were 938 total traffic fatalities, according to the Tennessee Department of Safety. (Note: The website listing fatalities, which on Monday morning still had Friday’s figures for 2012, is HERE.)
The increase raises questions about the effectiveness of the signs. Some motorists say they don’t work, but Poole and other state officials say, at a minimum, they get people talking about staying safe.
“It was always our goal to raise awareness, and we certainly think we have done that,” Tennessee Department of Transportation spokeswoman Beth Emmons said. “People are always talking about it.”
…In 2011, traffic deaths reached a nearly 50-year low, and this year’s total probably still falls below that of 2010, which saw 1,032 fatalities, Donnals said.
TDOT Commissioner John Schroer decided to erect the signs in April after seeing a spike in deaths through the first three months of the year.
From January through March, there were 64 more traffic deaths than during the same three months in 2011. But from April through November, there were just three more deaths than during the corresponding period in 2011.
Tennessee’s notable deaths of 2012 The Associated Press
Gene Bartow, president of Memphis Grizzlies owners group and former UCLA and UAB basketball coach, died Jan. 3 in Birmingham Ala., at age 81.
Dan Evins, founder of Cracker Barrel, died Jan 14 in Lebanon at age 76.
Earl Scruggs, master banjoist, died March 28 in Nashville at age 88.
Andrew Love, tenor saxophonist in the Memphis Horns duo, died April 12 in Memphis at age 70.
Charles “Skip” Pitts, Memphis guitarist for Isaac Hayes who played on “Shaft,” died May 1 in Memphis at age 65.
George Lindsey, TV’s Goober Pyle, died May 6 in Nashville at age 83.
Evelyn Bryan Johnson, pioneering female pilot known as “Mama Bird,” died May 12 in Morristown at age 102.
Donald “Duck” Dunn, Memphis bassist with Booker T. and the MGs and The Blues Brothers, died May 13 while on tour in Tokyo at age 70.
Doug Dilliard, banjoist who played with The Darlings on the Andy Griffith Show, died May 16 in Nashville at age 75.
Donna Summer, the singer known as the queen of disco, died May 17 in Naples, Fla., at age 63.
Bob Welch, a former member of Fleetwood Mac who also had a solo career, died June 7 in Nashville at age 65.
Donna Hilley, former Sony/ATV Nashville president and CEO, died June 20.
Kitty Wells, country music’s first female superstar, died July 16 in Nashville at age 92
Bob Babbitt, Motown studio musician and member of the Funk Brothers, died July 16 in Nashville at age 74
Doris Sams, a pitcher and outfielder who helped inspire the movie “A League of Their Own,” died June 26 in Knoxville at age 85.
Joe Gilliam Sr., former head football coach at Tennessee State University, died Nov. 14 in Nashville at age 89.
Bernard Lansky, the retailer who helped a young Elvis Presley establish his signature clothing style, died Nov. 15 in Memphis at age 85