The Department of Children's Services will now post on its website documents relating to its internal investigations into the deaths and near deaths of children.
The agency already has posted more than 3,600 pages of documents relating to the deaths or injuries suffered by 64 children in Tennessee during the last half of 2012. All identifying information has been redacted. The documents are available at www.tn.gov/youth/childsafety/data2012.html .
Allowing the public to freely access the records, and at no cost, represents a sharp reversal from the agency's position one year ago, when officials refused to make public any records related to child deaths or near deaths.
The Tennessean, joined by a coalition of 12 media groups across the state, filed suit against DCS in December seeking records of children who had died or nearly died after being reported to DCS for suspicions of abuse or neglect between January 2009 and July 2012.
DCS said it would charge media groups $55,584 for access to those records, a price tag that included the cost of DCS staff traveling thousands of miles across the state to retrieve records from local offices, although officials later conceded most records are available on any state computer. The agency later reduced its fee to $32,225 for the records.
In April, Chancery Court Judge Carol McCoy ordered the agency to turn over the records at a cost of 50 cents per page. State officials have said they will appeal that ruling.
When The Tennessean requested additional and more recent records, the agency again set a high price tag, saying the records would cost the newspaper $34,952.
But it is a portion of those records, from the last half of 2012, that the agency is now placing online at no cost.
Advocates for government transparency praised DCS' decision.
"This is good news and a step in the right direction for openness in government," said Deborah Fisher, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government.
"Public records -- in this case investigative reports that we understand will be properly redacted to protect privacy -- can shed light on the terrible problem of child fatalities in Tennessee and could lead to real solutions. It's good to see the department take that step."