U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper calls the inability of the Tennessee Department of Children's Services to protect children and meet federal standards "embarrassing" and "tragic."
Cooper, a Nashville Democrat, said DCS has not released enough information about the deaths of children with whom the agency had prior dealings. Nor has the department sufficiently responded to the state's Citizen Review Panels, which recommend measures for protecting children.
"So many have died and we're not even allowed to know about how or why," Cooper said.
Yet he and others in Tennessee's congressional delegation said they're waiting to see how state lawmakers address DCS problems before acting. That's partly because they're not confident federal oversight and mandates can truly help the state's children.
Leaders of the Tennessee General Assembly announced last week that they will probe the work of DCS, the $650 million state agency that investigates child abuse, runs the state's foster care system and oversees juvenile delinquents.
Until state officials act, Republican U.S. Senators Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker won't act, each said in a written statement.
"We will continue to monitor this issue to determine if there is an appropriate federal legislative role to be played," Corker said.
DCS must adhere to the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) to receive an annual federal allotment of more than $500,000. But DCS didn't respond to citizen review panel recommendations within six months -- a CAPTA requirement.
"For citizens to participate and not hear anything for two years, that's very disturbing," Cooper said. "This is not paperwork for paperwork's sake. When a special panel is called like this, you should pay attention."
State lawmakers have voiced similar concerns. Still in question in two separate lawsuits is whether DCS has provided the kinds of child fatality information required under CAPTA.
The Tennessean and a coalition of media organizations sued for the records in Davidson County court. In federal court, a watchdog group asked a different judge to require DCS to provide similar fatality records. The judges haven't ruled.
In its newest plan for spending CAPTA money, DCS said at least $300,000 would go toward three areas: training child protective services' front-line workers, coaching for regional workers, and creating a medical consultation network so DCS employees can talk to trained doctors about whether abuse or neglect has taken place.
Funding can be withheld from states who don't meet mandates, but a spokesman for the Administration of Children and Families did not respond to questions about whether Tennessee has been under such a threat.
DCS also has received more than $70 million in federal funds each of the past two years to care for foster children who come from low-income homes, DCS officials said.
That money, which is separate from CAPTA grants, was not always properly spent in Tennessee, a 2009 federal review found. But a new 2012 review found that improvements had been made and the requirements were being met.
"The state will definitely be deemed compliant," this time, said Sandra Wilson, DCS executive director of child permanency.
State lawmakers are pressing for more information.
Speaker of the House Beth Harwell and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey announced last week that hearings on the subject are coming. Sen. Jim Summerville, R-Dickson, plans to make sure the review isn't cursory.
"The investigation itself will be watched by members of the General Assembly," Summerville wrote in an email to The Tennessean. "A rush to judgment, an exoneration in advance of any public official, or a superficial inquiry will be brought to public attention."
Separately, Republican leaders of the Civil Justice Committee, which would handle DCS-related bills, will meet face to face today with DCS Commissioner Kate O'Day. DCS spokeswoman Molly Sudderth said O'Day has made a concerted effort to meet lawmakers.
Reach Tony Gonzalez at firstname.lastname@example.org.