Anita Wadhwani | The Tennessean
Since January, the Department of Children's Services has reported that 73 children who were brought to its attention died in 2012, but the state now says the correct number is 105.
DCS also miscalculated the number of children who died in 2011. In October, the agency said 47 children had died after having some contact with DCS, but now the state says the correct number for that year is 91.
DCS has now revised upwards the number of such child fatalities at least five times since The Tennessean asked for the data in September, prompting frustration as well as a measure of skepticism from lawmakers reached on Monday.
"Can we rely on these numbers? I don't know. I hope we can," said state Sen. Jim Summerville, a Republican from Dickson. "It's strange to me that a big department with lots of professional help keeps having to change their report. Counting children should not be that hard. Counting dead children is an awful thing, but the department must do it right."
State Rep. Sherry Jones, a Nashville Democrat, began requesting child fatality data in July. On Monday, Jones -- like Summerville -- said she still had not received an accurate accounting from DCS, asking that the numbers be read to her over the phone.
"This is unbelievable, unprofessional," Jones said. "Unless the numbers are being manipulated and no one can keep track, they should know these numbers every day, and I'm surprised they don't."
All of the now-deceased children fall into three categories: They were in DCS custody at the time of their deaths, they were the subject of an active investigation, or they were children who had been investigated by DCS at some time in the three years before their deaths.
In the last category, DCS is now including previously unreported deaths of children in DCS' juvenile justice system who were on probation with DCS or referred by courts.
No further details about the ages, gender, county or circumstances in the deaths of these additional children were released by the agency. The child death information was contained in a weekly newsletter emailed primarily to employees Friday evening.
Newly appointed DCS Deputy Director Scott Modell said the data are now accurate. The chief problems in the past with providing accurate information stemmed from errors in the agency's computer system, the fact that data were not kept in one central place, and the lack of agreement on how to define deaths of children who are not in custody but are known to the agency, he said.
To verify the most recent data, DCS officials undertook a series of steps to manually compare children's records with DCS' computer system and reports from the Office of Child Safety, which investigates abuse, neglect and child deaths.
The agency also compared the DCS database with the Department of Health's vital statistics records and staff conducted a manual review of every match.
Modell said going forward the agency would report the deaths of children who are not in custody but who are being investigated for an allegation of abuse or neglect. Data for such deaths in 2013 will be available soon, he said.
Interim Commissioner Jim Henry appointed two senior staff members from the Department of Developmental and Intellectual Disabilities to oversee a review of the child death numbers.
Henry has also required DCS staff to contact him on his cellphone within one hour of learning of the death of a child. And Henry has pledged to call lawmakers personally when such a death occurs in their district.
Reach Anita Wadhwani at email@example.com or 615-259-8092.