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DCS failed to respond to citizen panels' suggestions

9:06 AM, Jan 14, 2013   |    comments
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By Anita Wadhwani, The Tennessean

The Department of Children's Services failed for more than a year to respond to recommendations by statewide Citizen Review Panels created to examine the state's efforts to protect children, according to the panel's statewide coordinator.

Federal law requires that DCS respond within six months.

On Tuesday, the group received DCS' response, addressing two years of recommendations from the group of pediatricians, police officers, social workers, teachers and other experts who serve on the Tennessee Citizen Review Panels.

"They responded to our 2011 and 2012 recommendations in the same letter," said Toni Lawal, a co-coordinator of the group and a social worker affiliated with the University of Tennessee College of Social Work.

DCS spokeswoman Molly Sudderth did not provide a response to questions last week about the reason for the delay or DCS' understanding of federal law.

On Sunday afternoon, Sudderth sent the newspaper a copy of the letter that DCS Commissioner Kate O'Day sent to the Citizen Review Panels on Dec. 31 but gave no further answers.

That letter raised other questions that DCS did not answer on Sunday.

The federal Administration for Children and Families - the agency charged with making sure states comply with laws on Citizen Review Panels - provided the newspaper with its files showing a different letter from O'Day, dated Sept. 20, 2012, that appeared to be the state's formal response to the Citizen Review Panels. It isn't clear whether DCS provided that to the panel members and why the agency did not provide it to the newspaper. The substance of the two O'Day letters is similar, but the dates are different.

The state's $650 million child protection agency has faced increasing criticism in recent months for its lack of responsiveness - to task forces, expert panels, legislators, outside agencies and even, in some cases, the law.

Under the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, Tennessee received $520,018 for 2012 and $517,528 for 2011 in federal funds.

To receive that funding, Tennessee is legally required to establish independent oversight of its child protection systems by citizen review panels - and to respond no later than six months after the date a report is submitted by the panel. Tennessee did not do that. The federal law does not specify any penalties for state agencies that fail to adhere to its requirements.

Teri Covington, senior program director for the National Center for the Review and Prevention of Child Deaths, said the law is intended to ensure accountability from states receiving federal child abuse prevention funds.

"The reason is to create citizen review panels in order to try and improve child welfare systems," Covington said. "States are supposed to have something in place to respond to the recommendations. Because if they don't, the panels have no real power."

3 recommendations

The state's Citizen Review Panel system consists of four regional groups in Memphis, Montgomery County, Hamilton County and a northwest region that includes nine rural counties. The panels have some latitude in deciding their focus, and Tennessee's panels, which include teachers and educators, have directed much of their attention to figuring out how school districts can help prevent and detect child abuse.

The panels issued two recommendations in 2012 and two in 2011. In 2012, their first recommendation was asking DCS to provide more regular training to school officials throughout the state on child abuse and neglect.

Their only other 2012 recommendation was urging DCS to respond to previous unanswered recommendations from 2011.

"Shelby County (Citizen Review Panel) members have expressed concern about the response to the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) document submitted to TDCS more than a year ago for approval. The MOU was developed to promote a plan for coordination of services for children and youth safety and to ensure they receive adequate interagency supports," the group wrote as its second 2012 recommendation.

In 2011, the group made its first request for the memorandum of understanding. It also recommended that DCS explore having a special central intake hotline number for school personnel as well as provide adequate training and information.

In O'Day's Dec. 31 response, she told the panel that the agency's general counsel was reviewing the memo and hoped to finalize it by the end of 2012. It isn't clear whether she meant the end of 2012 or the fiscal year, which ends in July 2013.

O'Day noted she was "also responding to the 2011 concern regarding the wait time of educators making a report to Central Intake." The department, she noted, had implemented such a hotline in August 2011.

It is not clear from O'Day's letter if the hotline was established at the group's urging. The child abuse hotline DCS operates for the public has resulted in long wait times and dropped calls in some cases. Other experts had also urged DCS to overhaul the hotline for child experts and the public.

O'Day said in response to a request for more training that she would continue to make a webinar site accessible to educators and that DCS staff would continue to respond to requests for presentations.

DCS has been criticized over the past year for a lack of accountability to those outside the agency.

Members of the Joint Task Force on Children's Justice/Child Sexual Abuse said they were unable to meet with O'Day for more than two years about their work, although the previous commissioner had met with them quarterly. O'Day subsequently agreed to meet with them.

Private agencies that contract with DCS to provide the majority of foster care and treatment services to children in state custody took the rare step of publicly calling for a meeting with O'Day, who had not met with them in more than a year. O'Day met with them for the first time in December.

In September, DCS chief counsel Doug Dimond conceded the agency had not been following a state law requiring the agency to communicate with lawmakers about the deaths of children in their districts.

Last week, a coalition of media led by The Tennessean filed suit arguing DCS should open its records on child fatalities. A child watchdog group asked a federal judge to open the records as well.

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