Children's Rights: DCS practices may be endangering children

5:17 PM, Jan 11, 2013   |    comments
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By Tony Gonzalez | The Tennessean

A national child advocacy organization has asked a federal judge to force the Tennessee Department of Children's Services to turn over child death records, saying the agency may be "putting children at risk of harm."

Children's Rights, the New York-based firm that first sued the department in 2000, filed a motion in federal court Thursday saying two children died inside the same Tennessee foster home within six months, and the response to the incidents by the DCS -- who placed them there -- has raised "serious concerns."

In another case, DCS allowed an infant to remain in a house without electricity or water and in which the family had a history of manufacturing methamphetamine, the filing states. The child died. The court filing called the house "a mess" and said the entire family was sleeping in the living room.

In federal court documents, Children's Rights demands that the department provide child fatality records for the children who died in 2011 and 2012 who had prior contact with DCS.

"Plaintiffs have a good faith belief that serious problems concerning child fatality investigations may be putting children at risk of harm," the filing states.

The Tennessean has asked DCS to respond.

The lawsuit includes emails and letters that show how the Children's Rights group -- assigned to monitor DCS as part of the ongoing federal case -- has not been able to get records first requested in September.

DCS and state officials made repeated promises to provide records, then delayed responses, and ultimately wrote that they would not voluntarily provide records, citing confidentiality concerns.

What few internal records and summaries DCS did provide in December 2012 were "superficial" and "grossly incomplete," the filing states.

The records revealed to the suing attorneys that internal fatality reviews did not describe prior DCS involvement before death or whether policies were filed.

The summaries made it "impossible to determine what transpired in those cases,'' according to the court filing.

Children's Rights argues records must be made public under federal and Tennessee law.

Earlier this week, DCS -- represented by state Attorney General Janet Kleinfelter -- argued in Davidson County Chancery Court that its records should be kept confidential.

The department has made that argument in response to a Tennessean lawsuit, which is backed by a statewide media coalition, that seeks a similar set of child fatality records to what Children's Rights has now demanded through the federal court.

Thursday's filing brings to federal court the fight to force DCS to be transparent about child records.

Also Thursday, a state lawmaker accused DCS of secrecy and asked for an investigation.

The Children's Rights group joined with Tennessee attorneys to sue DCS in 2000 over mistreatment of children in foster care in a case known as "Brian A."

A federal settlement set numerous goals for DCS to meet and created a system in which a group of child welfare experts watch over DCS and examine data.

A decade later, DCS has not met some of the goals, and in some cases has slipped backward.

In October in federal court in Nashville, Children's Rights attorney Ira Lustbader described DCS recordkeeping as in "crisis."

Under that federal settlement, the firm argues that even beyond state and federal open records laws, that it is entitled to information DCS has not provided.

This is a developing story and will be updated in print and online.

Reach Tony Gonzalez at 615-259-8089 of tgonzalez@tennessean.com. Follow him on Twitter @tgonzalez.

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