DCS turns over last of child-death files

By Brian Haas, The Tennessean

A year after a public records request by The Tennessean, attorneys for the Tennessee Department of Children's Services on Friday handed over the final set of records detailing the deaths and near-deaths of children who have had brushes with the state child welfare system since 2009.

The 42 partially redacted cases handed over in Davidson County Chancery Court on Friday signal the newspaper's ongoing public records lawsuit against the embattled agency could be coming to a close. Yet both sides indicated there are unresolved issues — mainly involving costs — still being negotiated.

The two sides appeared before Chancellor Carol McCoy, who has overseen the release of 296 case files detailing suspected abuse, neglect and deaths of the state's most vulnerable children. DCS previously had fought the release of such records, arguing simultaneously that they were not public and that it would cost $55,000 for copies of those reports. The Tennessean led a coalition of media companies around the state in suing DCS in December to secure the case files' release.

But the agency on Thursday announced it would voluntarily provide at no cost records of cases after July 1, 2012, and going forward.

"It's going to be a part of their normal course of business," Janet Kleinfelter, attorney for DCS, said at the hearing.

McCoy called the development a "fortuitous event."

But still unresolved is what the state will do about its attempts to charge tens of thousands of dollars for the records originally requested by The Tennessean. DCS had reduced its estimates of those costs from $55,484 to $34,225, but McCoy ruled the agency could charge no more than 50 cents per page.

At Friday's hearing, Kleinfelter said she planned to file paperwork detailing costs incurred by the agency, possibly as a first step toward an appeal of McCoy's ruling.

The media coalition also could be seeking to recoup its costs in fighting the state agency in court. Robb Harvey, an attorney with the Nashville firm Waller, who represents media groups, said, "We are giving serious consideration" to demanding DCS pay attorney costs associated with the lawsuit.

McCoy held off on scheduling another hearing to give DCS and the media coalition time to resolve the cost issues outside court. The case will return to court if it isn't resolved in the next few weeks.


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