TN child abuse cases mishandled, report says

8:00 AM, Jan 3, 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 police.

And those professionals must communicate better to close "gaping holes" in the child welfare system, which still misses opportunities to protect kids, including in cases in which abusive families are already known to officials, the report says.

"The SLC determined there are significant problems with the manner in which severe child abuse cases are being handled in Tennessee," the report states. "It will take a concerted and sustained effort to peel away the many layers of this complex issue to get to the core."

The findings highlight how all child welfare officials can improve, especially by undergoing training sessions together, said Carla Aaron, DCS executive director for child safety and a member of the commission.

"What I can impact within DCS, certainly, we will try to weave it in," she said. "Several of the recommendations we have already begun working on."

Lawmakers, judges, doctors, lawyers, police and child advocates make up the 17-member commission, which lawmakers created in 2010 to examine cases in which children suffered severe abuse more than once.

The 23-page report details eight areas where Tennessee can improve and summarizes six cases the commission reviewed in depth - including investigative files, police reports and medical records.

Some child abuse investigators gave up too easily and didn't share information, allowing serious concerns to go uninvestigated, the panel found.

In one case, a child was left with drug-using caregivers because they wouldn't cooperate - although police were able to glean information. In another, a mother and child in a domestic violence shelter could not be located. Seven months passed before another neglect report sent an investigator to search for them again.

Despite the alarming details, Aaron said DCS would be careful not to rush to revise policies because the findings stem from so few cases, each with unique circumstances.

But the examples do show areas where training, better communication and policy reviews may be warranted, said Craig Hargrow, director of the Second Look Commission.

"It's been the philosophy that training and policy are likely the places that we and everybody else will have the most impact," he said.

The commission criticized investigations that were closed too soon - before a full set of services could be lined up to help families.

"What we're seeing this year is caseworkers identifying an issue or a safety hazard and addressing the hazard but not particularly addressing why the hazard is there in the first place," Hargrow said.

As an example, the report describes a girl placed with an out-of-state relative only to end up moving across multiple states and in and out of foster care.

"Approximately two years later, she found herself back in Tennessee, off her much-needed medication, without a home and not in school," the report states.

Aaron said DCS has already begun a shift toward issues-driven investigations.

"It's harder, and it's a philosophical change," she said. "For many, many years, you went in and investigated the incident and made your decision, closed your case and moved on. Now you're not only having to view the neglect that is presented to you, but the underlying issues of the family. To get at that you really have to engage with the family and gain some trust, and once you've uncovered that, you need to have the services available."

More recommendations

The report has been delivered to lawmakers, Gov. Bill Haslam and other child welfare officials, including those who may need to consider possible changes to laws, policies and staffing.

The commission wants more consistency among county Child Protective Investigative Teams, which make decisions about criminal child abuse prosecutions. A statewide coordinator and advisory board could help preserve evidence for future prosecutions, experts found.

The report also found:

• Domestic violence investigations need to be improved, and offender penalties increased;

• The state should be more thorough in examining the health of children exposed to methamphetamine;

• DCS should review policies regarding how foster families and custodians are approved to care for kids, to avoid cases like one in which a girl was left to live with a man who had sexually abused her sister.

Multiple reports

One area that remained a concern is that, in too many cases, an allegation of abuse had to be reported to DCS multiple times before an investigation began. In repeat abuse cases, on average, children are referred 6.4 times before the case is investigated.

Aaron said three regions are trying a new way of handling cases. Any time a child under 3 is referred a third time, a deeper review by regional supervisors takes place.

According to DCS, less than 4 percent of children brought to the department's attention through an allegation of abuse or neglect experienced repeat maltreatment within six months, which the state says is better than the federal standard.

The governor did not have an immediate response to the report, but a spokesman pointed to his support of enhanced domestic violence and methamphetamine penalties as consistent with the findings. The report backs Haslam's push for new family justice centers, where professionals work together in one place to service family violence victims.

The commission also reported that some of its 2011 findings about DCS caseworker turnover and low pay could be partly addressed by the department's recent budget proposal, which asks for frontline staff pay raises.

Data questioned

Meanwhile, a commission analysis of abuse statistics was hampered by faulty numbers provided by DCS.

The commission had worked with numbers that showed a dramatic increase in severe re-abuse cases, but DCS conceded in October the numbers were not correct - that 2010 numbers were undercounted and 2011 overcounted.

Hargrow said the commission has learned of about 270 repeat-abuse cases in fiscal year 2012, although the data problems make it impossible to analyze whether that's up or down.

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