By: Tony Gonzalez and Anita Wadhwani
A federal judge on Friday said he has become impatient with the Tennessee Department of Children's Services' inability to accurately count child deaths and issued firm deadlines for officials to make improvements.
Judge Todd J. Campbell ordered DCS to give child fatality records to a child advocacy watchdog group within seven days and to overhaul the department's child fatality review process within 90 days.
And the judge again questioned the reliability of department data and said time is running out for DCS to fix the computer system it uses to keep records.
"This is too important to keep pushing deadlines down the road," Campbell said.
The judge scheduled the hearing months ago to check in on DCS, which must improve its care of foster children, according to a federal court order. A class action lawsuit known as "Brian A." prompted a settlement agreement in 2001 and set up a team of experts to monitor DCS.
The department made enough progress by 2010 that the judge agreed to an exit plan under which DCS would be released from court-ordered monitoring. But recent problems have concerned the judge and the New York-based child advocacy group Children's Rights, which joined with Tennessee attorneys to sue in 2000.
Problems continue to surface. A day before the hearing, state officials disclosed that the deaths of nine children in state custody had gone unreported for months - raising the number of custodial deaths in the past two years to 25. The revelation spurred Gov. Bill Haslam to appoint special adviser Larry Martin to probe the department.
"There was ongoing progress toward achieving goals, checked off as time went by. Everybody was so optimistic that an exit plan was created," the judge said Friday. "At this point, that exit plan seems like a distant memory."
Campbell said he has become impatient with the department's computer problems, which have provided questionable reports.
"Computer systems are complicated, but at some point, the talk's got to end and action's got to happen," he said.
'Needs to be fixed'
Attorneys representing DCS said the computer software, the Tennessee Family and Child Tracking System, or TFACTS, has improved. A detailed progress report due in May isn't expected to be delayed.
But questions remained about how DCS only recently realized nine deaths went uncounted for months and whether the latest information can be trusted.
At one point, the judge asked Memphis attorney Jon Lakey, who represents DCS, whether TFACTS could produce a list of children who died in the past two years.
"That's obviously a question that has percolated up, especially in the last couple days, and your honor is obviously aware of some of the concerns," Lakey began to answer, before the judge cut him off.
"I didn't hear either a yes or a no," the judge said. "I heard that I had a good question. So what's the answer?"
"What it can do," Lakey answered, "it certainly can show the individuals who were being served by DCS who have exited services as a result of death ... that, in fact, is how the additional individuals who died under DCS custody were discovered."
The judge again asked about the deaths later, confronting Deputy Attorney General Martha Campbell, who also represented DCS.
"DCS knows this needs to be fixed - everyone knows this needs to be fixed," the attorney said.
"It's kind of hard to overstate the seriousness," the judge replied.
The judge then asked whether DCS could provide a reliable number for how many children died who had any kind of prior contact with the department - a larger group than just those children in state care.
The attorney said those deaths are more difficult to track, prompting the judge to offer a solution.
"Is there a way to simply take obituaries and death certificates and match them up with the computer program at DCS to see if there was any prior contact?" he asked.
The attorney said she couldn't say for sure but called it "a good idea."
Separately Friday, a DCS spokeswoman said the department won't be releasing any new numbers until completing a review.
The judge also ordered DCS to reform its child fatality review process within 90 days. The process is meant to investigate deaths and determine what can be done to prevent future problems.
In the past two weeks, Children's Rights raised "serious concerns" about the reviews and a Tennessean report showed how the fatality review team fell behind on its work, ignored policy and didn't often provide recommendations for ways to improve casework.
While the judge emphasized urgency in court, state officials on Friday would not put a deadline on a comprehensive review of the entire department. Haslam announced the review Thursday after the uncounted deaths came to light.
He picked retired Knoxville banker Larry Martin to probe the department while Commissioner Kate O'Day continues to manage daily operations. Martin's role "will take however much time it takes, and it'll be a process," said Haslam spokesman Dave Smith.
Martin, a deputy to Haslam as Knoxville mayor, has recently helped overhaul the state's civil service laws, earning $143,000 annually. He will continue in that role while reviewing DCS.
State Rep. Ryan Haynes called Martin a "smart manager and businessman." Martin, a prominent banker for 30 years, went on to shape fiscal policy in the state's third-largest city.
State Rep. Sherry Jones, a critic of DCS, said she was concerned about his lack of experience in child welfare systems.
"If he doesn't have any expertise in neglected and abused children and the processes, he's not going to tell us anything that we don't already know," Jones said. "We know what's wrong with DCS; we just can't get anyone to fix it."
O'Day and Martin, through spokesmen, declined to be interviewed.
Contact Tony Gonzalez at 615-259-8089 or email@example.com. Contact Anita Wadhwani at 615-259-8092 or firstname.lastname@example.org.