By Anita Wadhwani, The Tennessean
The sheriff of Dickson County and the executive director of a child welfare agency in that county have accused the state's Department of Children's Services of not following the law in severe child abuse cases, according to correspondence obtained by The Tennessean.
"Severe abuse cases are being miscategorized as lesser offenses, and opportunities to intervene to protect children are being lost," said Jeff Bledsoe, sheriff of Dickson County.
"I have been advised of documented cases, in which reported cases meeting the definition of 'Severe Child Abuse' are not being classified as such in accordance with the statute," Bledsoe wrote.
"This is very concerning to me, as there may be only one opportunity to intervene and protect or save a child's life," he noted in a letter to state Sen. Jim Summerville, a Republican from Dickson.
Summerville, who forwarded the letter to DCS, said he is working with child welfare officials in his district to set up a meeting with DCS about the issues raised. He said he was aware of "four or five cases" in his district that had been improperly classified.
Classifying a case as "severe" requires authorities to immediately intervene, Bledsoe said. Cases without that classification may not rise to a criminal offense, often aren't required to be reported to police and may result in children being left in abusive homes, he said.
"A lot of them wouldn't even come through our office," Bledsoe said. "They'd just go directly to Children's Services, and that was my concern as well. If we're both looking at them, that would ensure two different agencies are involved."
DCS Commissioner Kate O'Day, who staff said was out of state Monday and unavailable, has responded in writing that she will investigate.
"We consider this a very serious matter and intend to conduct a thorough investigation," O'Day wrote in a Sept. 3 letter, requesting that names and dates of specific incidents be turned over to DCS.
Children 'in danger'
The letters emerged after sharp criticisms of DCS by Democratic Rep. Sherry Jones last week over data on child deaths. Jones requested information more than two months ago on the number of deaths of children in state custody for the first six months of 2012, and the number of deaths of children for whom a case file had been opened.
The Tennessean requested the same data on Monday. DCS has not yet produced that information.
A $37 million computer system designed to keep track of every child whom DCS encounters has instead been unable to perform basic agency functions, two separate reports this year have found.
In Dickson County, "children have been placed in danger due to the process that is currently in place," Kim Stringfield-Davis, Child Advocacy Center executive director wrote in a separate letter.
"Events of severe child abuse are being ruled as non-severe and not being investigated," Stringfield-Davis said, also in a letter to Summerville, her district's representative. The Child Advocacy Center is part of a statewide network of agencies that work with abused children.
"Evidence that could be used in the prosecution of perpetrators is being lost due to cases being screened out and never reaching the investigation process," she wrote.
Stringfield-Davis declined to comment on her letter, instead emailing a brief statement saying, "The agencies tasked with the protection of children in the 23rd District have come in agreement that there are systemic issues with the current reporting system of the Department of Children's Services." She said she looked forward to meeting with DCS to discuss her concerns.
DCS will convene a meeting with the sheriff, Stringfield-Davis, a representative from Gov. Bill Haslam's office, Summerville and others in early October, said Carla Aaron, DCS executive director for child safety, on Monday.
Change in policy
The agency had not heard any concerns from other parts of the state like the ones specifically reported in the Dickson County letters, Aaron said.
The agency did recently adjust how workers make the determination of severe child abuse, she said.
Previously, centralized DCS intake workers would make a determination of severe child abuse based on a report typically phoned in from front-line staff, she said.
"The change came about when we realized that was just initial information. We realized that it was not always accurate or could be verified."
Now a front-line case manager, in conjunction with a supervisor and others, investigates further before they label an abuse case "severe," she said.
Summerville said Monday that he is aiding the sheriff and child welfare officials in gathering examples of cases statewide of severe child abuse that DCS allegedly misclassified as less severe.
He plans to deliver the case information to DCS on Friday, he said.
"We're currently looking for statewide evidence and we know it exists across the state," Summerville said. "There are four or five in our area that we know of and can validate with certainly, but we want to show (Commissioner O'Day) - and we know we can, unfortunately - that it's a statewide problem."
He said if he is not satisfied with O'Day's response, he intends to ask her to testify before the General Assembly's Government Operations Committee.