Attorneys for the Department of Children's Services returned to federal court Monday to present a revised plan for investigating child deaths and near deaths.
They described the changes as a "significant step forward" for the embattled agency.
is under a federal court order to revise its system for investigating
child deaths. Since January 2011, the agency has had no formal
guidelines for tracking or investigating the deaths of children in
custody or children brought to its attention for allegations of abuse or
It was a system that DCS attorney Jon Lakey conceded to
the judge was "deeply flawed" and may have left some child deaths
unaccounted for completely.
In the same courtroom three months ago, DCS lawyers had acknowledged that they had miscounted just how many children had died under the watch of the agency.
January, DCS told U.S. District Court Judge Todd Campbell that, in
fact, 22 children had died in state custody in 2011 and 2012, not the 11
the agency originally reported to the court. And instead of 88 deaths
of children with prior contact with DCS, there were about 171 instead.
Campbell on Monday asked DCS to explain how the agency could have miscounted so many deaths.
"What accounts for this large variation in numbers?" Campbell asked.
Lakey provided no specific details.
"I can't tell you any more than the process we had before was flawed. It was a flawed process," Lakey said.
then, however, Lakey said the agency has followed the judge's
suggestion to compare state death certificates to its database of
children to determine how many have died in the past two years. Most of
the previously uncounted deaths were discovered this way, he said.
The agency is confident that the 22 in-custody deaths is an accurate count, Lakey said.
Lakey also conceded that DCS officials may never be 100 percent sure
about another number. They think 171 children who were not in state
custody but had prior contact with DCS died in those two years, but they
can't be sure.
"To say there isn't one or two or an infant we missed, I can't say," Lakey said.
three children died who were involved with DCS' juvenile justice
system, but their deaths were not the subject of Monday's court
hearings, which focused on children in custody and children at risk for
entering custody. In total, 196 children in custody or with prior DCS
contact died in 2011 and 2012, according to DCS figures.
'A step forward'
Going forward, however, the agency has created a new and detailed
plan for investigating and accounting for each child's death that
includes a rapid response to each reported fatality, a 90-day timeline
for reviewing each death, and quarterly and annual reports outlining the
result of their investigations, including detailing any identified
missteps by the agency that may have led to the deaths, Lakey said.
the one-hour hearing, DCS Commissioner Jim Henry said he was pleased
with the progress the agency had made in three months. Henry was
appointed as the agency's head Feb. 5 after the resignation of his
predecessor, Kate O'Day.
"I think (the judge) sees we made some
progress," Henry said. "Of course, we have a long way to go. I think
it's the first time we took a step forward. It seems like every time we
came to court we seem to take a step back."
In the next 30 days,
DCS will create an implementation plan to put the new child fatality
review process into place, Lakey said. By August, the agency plans to
have the formal review process in place for every death or near death of
a child under their care.
The agency will retroactively
investigate child deaths to Jan. 1 of this year. This year, seven
children have died in state custody. DCS has not yet provided the number
of children who had prior contact with the agency and subsequently died
Ira Lustbader, an attorney for New York-based
Children's Rights, which has oversight of DCS' foster care system and
brought the flawed child fatality investigation process to the court's
attention, said he was more optimistic about DCS' plans going forward.
the process was flawed, kids were at risk every day," Lustbader said.
"It was unfortunate we needed to get to court to get back on this track,
but I think we're in a better position than we were three months ago."
The parties return to court Sept. 9 to update the judge on DCS' progress.