By Anita Wadhwani, The Tennessean
A review of the deaths of 31 Tennessee children
this year who had come to the attention of the Department of Children's
Services while they were alive was "incredibly distressing" but yielded
no immediate evidence that the agency had acted inappropriately, Gov.
Bill Haslam said Tuesday.
"I spent the weekend looking at
reports," said Haslam in a meeting he requested with The Tennessean to
address emerging controversy over the agency in recent weeks.
look at enough of these, and if you don't have an upset stomach at the
end of the day, something's wrong with you," he said. "It's incredibly
distressing and depressing. But I do think this: I can't tell you I've
exhaustively reviewed every case. But from what I've reviewed, I do
think DCS has taken appropriate action."
encompassed 11 cases that remain under an open investigation. In 14
other cases, the agency has been unable to substantiate abuse or
neglect, said DCS chief Kate O'Day, who accompanied the governor. In one
case of a mother leaving a child unattended in the bathtub, there was
an indication of abuse.
The agency has come under criticism on
several fronts. The agency's chief lawyer conceded last week that DCS
had been violating a state law that required it to report each death of a
child under investigation to lawmakers. The agency's former legislative
director, Aaron Campbell, subsequently stepped forward, saying he had
personally briefed O'Day and other agency officials on their legal
obligation to make those reports.
In recent months, the agency has
been faulted when its computer system stopped making payments to some
foster parents and was unable to provide data on the children it is
And Dickson County officials alleged that agency
workers were illegally mishandling cases of children who had suffered
Last week, the agency released data to The
Tennessean and state Rep. Sherry Jones that 10 infants died in the first
six months of this year while they were subjects of an open
investigation by DCS. Four children in state custody died during the
same period, as did 17 children whose investigation DCS had closed.
On Tuesday, O'Day provided a few additional details.
the four children who died in state custody, two were infants who
succumbed to injuries inflicted before they were in custody -- one
through drug exposure and another with a severe head injury. One youth
died in a car crash. Another receiving extensive medical care was "found
unresponsive and in spite of all our efforts to meet his medical needs
and ensure he was taking his medication, he died," O'Day said.
the 10 children whom DCS was actively investigating at the time of
their deaths, one died of complex medical issues, O'Day said. Another
involved an infant in a car carrier at a church "who had blankets
propped up on it." Seven of the cases involved co-sleeping and parental
Salaries are concern
Haslam said his review
prompted immediate concern about the low pay and high turnover of DCS
caseworkers and the agency's track record in responding to requests for
information on child deaths.
"I came away thinking I don't like it
that we're trying to hire someone for $26,000 to do that job," Haslam
said. "I don't feel good about some of our communications, both in terms
of data and in terms of how do we respond to all of the interested
On Tuesday, O'Day said the agency's "transition process
fell down" when she took office and the agency stopped complying with a
law to inform lawmakers of each child death in their districts.
might say, 'Why don't you have these numbers at your fingertips?' "
O'Day said. " 'Why aren't you tracking on your desk every day how many
child fatalities and how you compare to last year?' And that's a
reasonable question. I think it's important, though, to put that in the
context that we tend to be more focused on the work we are doing to
actually actively investigate."
She conceded, however, that she
personally received notification of each death of a child who was under
the watch of the agency "that day or the next day."
And in describing the child death data, O'Day drew an analogy to traffic fatality numbers.
I drive up and down 65, I see those traffic fatality numbers," she
said. "Law enforcement keeps their finger on that number. They know
where they are compared to last year at this time. They're watching the
number ... because there are things that law enforcement can do that
have a direct correlation to that number. So when law enforcement steps
up their ticketing, people slow down and traffic fatalities go down. You
can definitely intervene in how fast people are driving.
you're talking about child fatalities, child fatalities from abuse and
neglect take place as a result of private behavior and in Tennessee's
case, constitutionally protected private behavior. ... Tennessee has one
of the strongest family protective states because of the way our laws
are written. So DCS can get involved when we have probable cause,
somebody calls up, but we can't get involved beforehand. We can't go out
and start ticketing. We have to have essentially a reactive posture."
Haslam said he also was aware of the agency's challenges.
dealing with parents who don't take that responsibility seriously, are
at best negligent and often criminal," he said. We all come with this
inherent sense that kids should be with their families where they can
be. We're having to make this hard choice of yes, that's the best
alternative, but should that be the alternative at this point in time?
And there's a lot of decisions that are made along the way."
governor praised O'Day. "One of the reasons I asked Kate to take this
job is that she has a real appreciation for kids in vulnerable
situations," Haslam said. "I know she has made child safety a priority. I
saw that in Knoxville (when O'Day was head of a nonprofit agency). I've
seen that here. I want to emphasize that we know we're not perfect. We
know we've got issues."