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DCS child fatality records hearing is set for today

9:26 AM, Jan 8, 2013   |    comments
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By Tony Gonzalez, The Tennessean

A judge is scheduled to hear arguments this morning by The Tennessean's attorney and the state Department of Children's Services regarding access to child fatality records.

The newspaper and a coalition of a dozen other news organizations filed a lawsuit Dec. 19, alleging that DCS is violating the law by refusing to provide the records of children who died after being brought to the agency's attention.

The Tennessean made requests over a three-month period for information about 31 children who died in the first half of 2012 - and regarding 206 children involved in fatal and near-fatal incidents dating back to 2009.

The lawsuit asked that DCS immediately give those records to the court so Chancellor Carol McCoy can review them and redact any confidential information, and then for the records to be opened to the public.

The newspaper described the Tennessee Public Records Act as "among the broadest in the country," and cited federal law that requires disclosures in child fatality and near-fatality cases.

The department responded in writing Monday, stating that spreadsheets and one-line summaries of incidents given to The Tennessean are the only kinds of information allowed to be disclosed by state and federal laws - and that "information, not records," are subject for disclosure.

"There is an entire statutory scheme in both state and federal law that evidences a strong public policy and clear legislative intent that the records in question be kept confidential ..." the state responded in a court filing.

DCS also argues that privacy for children receives special legal protections.

The department had requested that the hearing be delayed, because the requested records would require more than 1,000 hours to retrieve, copy and ship to the department's Central Office in Nashville before the judge could review them.

Monday, the department also described the files as containing information about multiple clients other than children who died, and that psychological, financial and school-related records are also confidential.

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