By Bobby Allyn / The Tennessean
Davidson County Chancellor Carol McCoy on Wednesday ordered the
Tennessee Department of Children's Services to provide the Tennessean
and other media outlets with redacted case files of the 50 most recent
cases involving 2012 fatalities or near-fatalities of children under
McCoy said the state cannot charge for redacting
those records or criss-crossing the state to pick them up. Previously,
state lawyers had said the state would charge $55,584 for the same
records, a price they later reduced to $34,225.
groups must pay 50 cents per copy for the records - more than three
times the standard copying costs for state records.
The state has
until May 3 to turn over an initial batch of records being sought by the
media groups. The 50 files - a fourth of the total number of records
sought by the media - will cost $1,067.50. The media is seeking more
than 200 records of the fatalities or near fatalities of children
overseen who had some contact with DCS and who died or suffered critical
injuries between January 2009 and July 2012.
McCoy ordered state
officials to turn over six of seven completed forms identified by media
groups as containing relevant information to determine how and why a
child may have died or suffered critical injuries. McCoy said any of
those forms completed within 30 days of the child's death or injury were
public records. She denied the coalition's request for a seventh form -
a computerized printout giving the interaction history of the child
with DCS. McCoy also ordered any relevant information about cases that
resulted in criminal prosecutions to be included in those forms.
the hearing, McCoy said determining the degree to which the files
should be made public is a delicate balancing act. "You can't unring the
bell," McCoy said, noting that releasing too much information about the
children could have dire consequences.
Deputy Attorney General
Janet Kleinfelter said providing the records that the media have
requested would be troublesome for staff and costly to the state.
that the case files are "very, very sensitive," Kleinfelter said she
"would not trust some low-level employee with redacting the
Dispute over fees
Attorney Robb Harvey, who represents the media coalition, said the
records in question are not "buried in a warehouse like the Lost Ark of
Indiana Jones." He said the price the state was asking for the records
was excessive. He asked McCoy to waive the fee since, he argued, the
files are of high public interest.
Maintaining that the fee is
legitimate, Kleinfelter said, "the plaintiff is a for-profit news
organization. These are not private citizens."
In McCoy's decision, however, she said the state's public records law applies equally to corporations and citizens.
Tennessean and a dozen other news organizations filed a lawsuit in
December alleging that the state Department of Children's Services was
violating state law by refusing to disclose the records of children who
died under the agency's supervision.
DCS has balked at those
requests, claiming some of the records are not public and that it would
cost tens of thousands of dollars to produce all of them.
latest filing, the media coalition asked McCoy to waive all costs for
producing the records. The state maintained that it would have to
hand-deliver records from all over the state and spend hours removing
The judge made clear that the accuracy and completeness of the DCS records is beyond her control.
was a lot of repetition," she said of four files she has already
reviewed. "There was a lot of disorganization. I can't make the records
any more than what's there," McCoy said.
"The documents that were
disclosed, pursuant to the samples that I provided at the time of the
order, there were lots of errors. And the problem is that there is no
verification of those errors in the record. It looks as though they were
paste and cut from computer printouts or written back on computer
printouts similar to the testimony in the Dyer case, where the worker
puts down a back date as to when a report was made."
County, a DCS caseworker was found to have backdated records after the
shooting deaths of a child and a caretaker who had temporarily taken her
in at the agency's request. The shooting left another woman gravely
injured. DCS was found liable in the shootings last year, and the case
was unsealed last month.
Harvey praised the ruling afterward.
are deeply appreciative of the Chancellor's ruling that the State must
turn over records relating to approximately one-quarter of those cases
since 2009," he said in a written statement. "These records will allow
the public to consider DCS's actions and accountability, and we
certainly are supportive of DCS's statements that it's taking steps to
promote the safety of children entrusted to its care."