By Anita Wadhwani | The Tennessean
Democratic state Rep. Sherry Jones has been waiting more than two months for the Department of Children's Services to tell her how many children in state custody have died this year and how many deaths occurred among children for whom the agency had ever opened a case file.
The Tennessean requested the same information Monday, but DCS was unable to provide any immediate answers.
The information, Jones said, is critical to learning how well the agency is doing its job of protecting children. She called the lack of timely information "dangerous" and "ridiculous."
DCS has come under increasing scrutiny in recent months for its inability to perform basic agency functions, such as making payments to foster parents and state agencies, keeping accurate records and properly documenting social workers' response times to incidents of child abuse.
A new $37 million computer system intended to track each child who has contact with DCS has been cited as a failure in keeping tabs on information the agency is legally required to keep.
"I know these deaths are occurring all across the state because they're reported in the media," Jones said. "But the state should be able to tell us how many children have died who were in their care or who they had a report on.
"The information that I asked for should be available every single day through the department. It's ridiculous, totally ridiculous, that it takes so long to get information from them."
DCS spokeswoman Molly Sudderth said Monday that the agency continued to work on gathering the information, but she did not specify when it would be available. "We will work to get this to you as soon as possible," she said.
A March report issued by the Tennessee comptroller's office criticized department officials, including its chief, Commissioner Kathryn "Kate" O'Day, for going forward with the system in the first place despite being aware it had "significant problems."
Report: Problems were disregarded
TFACTS, which stands for Tennessee Family and Child Tracking System, is supposed to track every child who is in custody or is the subject of a report or investigation. It is where incident reports alleging abuse or neglect, child deaths, truancy, child health issues and other information are logged. But it has been plagued with problems since it was put into place two years ago.
Agency officials failed to respond, the report said.
Department leaders "disregarded obvious and known problems with the system, as well as the recommendation of an independent reviewer, when they made the decision to implement the system statewide," according to the comptroller's report.
"Secondly," the report said, the agency "compounded the mistakes and errors in judgment related to the decision to implement TFACTS statewide by failing to adequately track the record of problems with the system and proactively address the known issues."
Sudderth said the department adopted the recommendations of the comptroller's March report and is "working to implement them. We are on track to implement the majority of the recommendations by the end of this calendar year. This includes creating a new data warehouse with new reports functionality."
In June, a separate report issued by an independent monitoring group found that the state's conversion from an older computer system to the new TFACTS "prevented the collection of reliable DCS data in over 20 areas of court-ordered reform, including response times to reports of child abuse, compliance with caseload standards for case workers assigned to protect children in foster care, and compliance with required visits between case workers and children in foster care."
The failures will mean that DCS will remain under court-ordered oversight, which has been in place since a federal judge found in 2000 that Tennessee was failing to properly care for children in foster care.
Attorney Ira Lustbader of New York-based Children's Rights, which brought the suit against the state, said that until the new system was put into place, his group thought the state had shown great improvement. Now a two-year exit plan designed to release the state from court oversight is postponed indefinitely, he said.
Jones said her chief concern is finding out whether DCS is failing children.
She first requested the information July 3. DCS Chief of Staff Frank Mix responded July 30 in a letter saying "we expect to have you the information by mid-August." Jones requested the information again Aug. 27 and then again last week.
Sudderth said her agency had been busy at the time of Jones' initial request, which came "three days following the close of the requested reporting period and the end of the state's fiscal year," she said. "The fiscal year end is a time when we are providing multiple complex reports to a variety of stakeholders."
Jones said that in the meantime, reports of children dying continue to cross her desk.
Friday she sent another request to DCS for all computer and written reports on Savannah and Daniel Marise, Smyrna toddlers who died in August in their mother's car. DCS was contacted by Smyrna police about the children before they died, Jones said.
Contact Anita Wadhwani at 615-259-8092 or firstname.lastname@example.org.