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Child abuse investigations lacking in TN, experts find

10:23 PM, Jan 2, 2013   |    comments
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By Tony Gonzalez / The Tennessean

Investigations into severe child abuse were left incomplete and failed to address the complicated needs of families, according to a new report by experts tasked with examining the "worst incidents of child abuse in Tennessee."

The Second Look Commission's 2012 Annual Report recommends more training for child abuse investigators, including Department of Children's Services caseworkers, mental health providers and law enforcement.

The 23-page report details eight areas where Tennessee can improve its protections of children. Lawmakers, judges, doctors, lawyers, police and child advocates make up the commission, which lawmakers created in 2010 to examine cases in which children suffered severe abuse on multiple occasions, even after being reported to DCS.

"It's been the philosophy that training and policy are likely the places that we and everybody else will have the most impact," commission Director Craig Hargrow said of the latest findings.

In the past year, the 17-person commission reviewed six cases, which was down from about 20 the year before, so that members could delve deeper into each, said Hargrow, a former DCS attorney and former Montgomery County juvenile court magistrate.

The commission's findings and recommendations, in brief:

  • More training is needed to assess the needs of children and more coordination between DCS and other officials connected to child protection;
  • Investigations should address the deep, complex issues that lead to abuse, instead of targeting individual incidents;
  • Tennessee needs more consistency among county Child Protective Investigative Teams, which look into abuse and make prosecution decisions;
  • Domestic violence investigations need to be improved, and offender penalties increased;
  • The state should improve responses for children exposed to methamphetamine;
  • In too many cases, abuse is reported to DCS multiple times before an investigation begins;
  • DCS should review policies regarding how foster families and custodians are approved to care for kids.

The commission also reported that some of its 2011 findings - that DCS caseworkers lack supervision, are inadequately paid, and leave the department at high rates - could be addressed by the latest DCS budget proposal.

That suggested budget asks for DCS frontline staff pay raises and creation of additional case manager positions.

Meanwhile, the commission's analysis of abuse data was hampered this year by faulty numbers provided by DCS.

For months, the commission worked with numbers that showed a dramatic increase in severe re-abuse cases, but DCS conceded in October that its numbers were not correct.

DCS reported then that 2010 numbers were undercounted and 2011 overcounted and DCS Commissioner Kate O'Day blamed the agency's new computer system, known as TFACTS, for the problem.

Department officials have said they will not try to correct the numbers.

"On the immediate recommendations and findings, I don't think it has a huge impact," Hargrow said. "My concern is, if the Second Look Commission is continued over time, then it's hard to look at trends."

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