DCS deleted details of children's deaths

9:05 AM, Feb 12, 2013   |    comments
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By Tony Gonzalez, The Tennessean

Someone at the Department of Children's Services who prepared documents for The Tennessean deleted large portions in the media's copy of state child fatality records - removing information that should have been made public.

Who did it, and why, the department has not yet said. An internal review is ongoing.

Last week, the agency provided a new set of Child Fatality Review Team records that include previously removed paragraphs describing how DCS allowed some abusive parents to keep children who later died. The records also show growing discomfort among senior-level staffers about the ineffectiveness of their death reviews.

Those details, which DCS spokeswoman Molly Sudderth said should have been there all along, are printed in red text.

On many pages, there's more red than black.

"Home was very nice and appropriate for baby and family," reads one sentence provided originally.

But there was more to the baby's story.

Several paragraphs of red text now surround the description of the "very nice" home. The additions describe the boy's parents as a teen mother and adult man - statutory rape is mentioned - and concern the newborn could become infected by his mother's herpes or human papillomavirus (HPV), which had killed a sibling.

The newborn and his teen mother were part of a family with more than a dozen prior DCS involvements, but they weren't in that home anymore. An aunt and uncle took in the couple, the latest version of the redacted records states.

The department's admission that it improperly redacted records involved Child Fatality Review Team documents released by DCS on Jan. 11.

Those documents were not part of a judge's ruling in a lawsuit by The Tennessean against DCS to get access to records related to more than 200 child deaths and near-deaths. In that suit, the judge ordered that 167 pages from four case files must be made public, as well as documents from the other cases.

The Child Fatality Review Team documents were given to The Tennessean by Sudderth on Jan. 11. There was no sign of a redactions problem until Feb. 5, when Sudderth called The Tennessean to explain the issue and provide a new set of documents.

For one child death, the family's entire history of DCS interactions, including eight prior abuse allegations, had been stripped out.

In another, records describe a home where a child died and where an insect infestation forced the family to move out - still with custody of other children.

Sudderth, who was not involved in preparing the records, said the redactions performed by Office of Child Safety staff were discovered by other employees looking at fatality paperwork.

After the discovery, DCS immediately assigned different employees to prepare records a second time. DCS attorneys have become involved.

Sudderth said the same problematic records were given to The Associated Press and to Children's Rights, a child advocacy group overseeing a federal lawsuit against DCS.

Many of the records are kept as typed documents on DCS computers, so when it came time to redact, the department chose to replace confidential information with "XXX" hundreds of times in 53 pages, Sudderth explained.

And because the records were edited on computer, entire paragraphs were able to be removed with no indication in the first set of records provided that the material ever existed.

Whoever did the redactions deleted enough text to fill almost 12 pages before the records were first made public.

Other redactions include the dates incidents occurred and the names of DCS staff members involved in the investigations and reviews. Sudderth said the agency has decided to provide the dates in the coming days.

Sudderth said the redactions were not uniform in each case, resulting in records in which parts of sentences got chopped off and facts eliminated from the middle of paragraphs.

Other records are entirely new to The Tennessean - including three pages detailing DCS actions at a July 2012 meeting. And when the Child Fatality Review Team split into two groups to catch up on long-overdue death reviews, more than 100 pages of records from one of the groups were left out at first.

Those records may not technically count as "meeting minutes" as requested by The Tennessean, said DCS General Counsel Doug Dimond. They were provided, "at this point ... to err on the side of disclosure."

Fatality reviews are designed to examine how well DCS does its work. The agency fell behind on the reviews the past two years, ignored policies and produced "grossly incomplete" records, Children's Rights has said in court filings.

Internal turmoil

The newly provided records also shed more light on how members of the fatality review team came to realize, in summer 2012, that their reviews were ineffective.

Some pushed for change. They wanted to review deaths soon after they happened and they wanted a better way to gather data to analyze trends from particular regions and to know if DCS investigators were failing in similar ways.

While some staffers raced to clear a backlog of death reviews in late 2012, other fatality team members worked on a new process for reporting fatalities and a new database to store the information, records show.

Their discomfort surfaced in meetings a few months before state Rep. Sherry Jones, D-Antioch, raised questions about the department's ability to track child deaths. Jones went public about her struggle to get information in September, triggering a Tennessean investigation that documented numerous DCS problems. Kate O'Day gave up the commissioner's post Feb. 5.

DCS death reviews have raised enough concern to trigger court action. In federal court, DCS agreed to work with the Annie E. Casey Foundation to develop a new fatality review process.

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