By Anita Wadhwani | The Tennessean
Lawyers for the Department of Children's Services say the agency's files are so scattered in dozens of offices throughout the state that it would require thousands of miles of travel at great expense to produce records of children it served who later died.
A week ago, the agency said it would cost $55,584.55 to provide the records to the media. That cost includes 14,000 miles of driving to hand-deliver copies, 9,000 photocopies, 600 rolls of white-out tape for redacting information and hiring a team of outside temporary paralegals to spend 600 hours redacting files.
It would take 66 hours to locate and pull the files in the local offices, 100 hours to deliver them from the local offices to the regional offices and 60 hours to deliver them from the regional offices to the central office in Nashville, DCS said.
On Friday agency officials confirmed that most of their records of children who died or nearly died in the last two years are available electronically via a $27 million computer system installed in 2010.
Files are accessible by computer
The department's Tennessee Family and Child Tracking System, or TFACTS, is accessible by thousands of computers around the state, via terminals at DCS' Central Nashville office, computers in regional offices and to outside organizations that contract with DCS.
But DCS says a judge's ruling limits the state's ability to release the files.
Nashville Chancery Court Judge Carol McCoy ordered DCS to make public portions of the files of more than 200 children who died or nearly died since 2009 and submit any cost estimate for doing so. The Tennessean led a statewide media coalition and sued the department for access to the records.
DCS Assistant General Counsel Britany Binkowski said Friday that because McCoy did not specifically order the agency to access electronic versions of records, DCS staff would instead have to travel to get those records as they are stored in county offices.
Binkowski said that McCoy had ordered the state to turn over any documents that contained information she ordered to be released, including: the circumstance and cause of the death, age and gender of the child, information about pertinent prior state involvement, results of those prior investigations, and the state services provided to the family.
Binkowski said staff will have to review every page in each child's file to ensure they are turning over legally required information.
That, she said, requires driving more than 14,000 miles to pick up boxes of files from local offices, taking them to regional offices and then delivering them to the central downtown office and back again, even though many of the records can be printed from computers in any of those offices.
The travel costs alone to hand-deliver the case files add thousands of dollars in mileage and in the hourly rates paid to the staff delivering them.
"Because she didn't say pull those files electronically, that's what those records are -- exact copies of what's in the child's case file," Binkowski said.
"It's going to be a judgment decision made on every single file."
Files in boxes at HQ
In addition to the records being available through the department's computer, a spokeswoman acknowledged Friday that boxes of the complete paper files of dozens of children who died in 2012 are sitting somewhere on the seventh floor of DCS headquarters in downtown Nashville.
Spokeswoman Molly Sudderth said the files on 31 children who died in the first six months of 2012 had been brought to the central office in late September, after inquiries from The Tennessean.
"They may all still be here," Sudderth said. "Some are still here. Some may have gone back. I haven't checked lately."
By Feb. 4, DCS had already gathered and turned over to federal court some portion of the records involving 113 of the children's files sought by the media coalition, according to an attorney with watchdog group Children's Rights.
Sudderth said that the information included 22 complete case files. The files of child deaths in 2011 and 2012 were ordered turned over to Children's Rights, which has oversight responsibility of the department's foster care system. The group had repeatedly sought the records for three months before turning to the courts. Last month, federal Judge Todd Campbell set a deadline for DCS to produce them by Feb. 4.
"We are in the process of reviewing them," said Children's Rights attorney Ira Lustbader.
Paper copies of DCS case files are stored in dozens of county offices around the state, DCS officials have said.
The files can include autopsy and police reports, photographs, audio and video recordings, and social workers' notes.
The files also include a variety of printouts from DCS computers, including intake forms, notes on visits to children, notes on medical reports, and records detailing calls to the child abuse hotline, DCS Executive Director of Child Safety Carla Aaron said.
'Our official record'
Aaron said the electronic records kept on each child by TFACTS represent the agency's comprehensive record.
"It's our official record, so you would document when you have interactions with families," she said. "I think significant ones are definitely in there. That really is our tracking of what we're doing, every activity on that case."
Diane DePanfilis, a consultant who authored a record-keeping chapter in the federal government's manual for child welfare agencies, said states are increasingly moving toward a fully electronic record.
She said those electronic files often include the agency's internal computer records on each child and scanned copies of all documents that agencies collect on a child.
"It seems there is a movement towards trying to have easy, accessible electronic files that document not only the circumstances of the families and children, but the nature of their assessments, court documents, medical records and any other record," said DePanfilis, also a professor and associate dean for research at the University of Maryland School of Social Work. "In the several states I have been recently, almost 100 percent of the record is integrated into their statewide information system."
Reach Anita Wadhwani at email@example.com or 615-259-8092.