A new state audit of Tennessee's Department of Children's Services found investigations into child abuse were not thorough enough, the department failed to report deaths to lawmakers as required by law, didn't perform sufficient background checks on some people working with vulnerable children, and could improve supervision of juvenile delinquents.
The 118-page report by the state comptroller was published today, just in advance of a hearing in which lawmakers would be questioning department officials. The audit looks at the department from 2007 through 2013.
The audit reviews a rocky period at DCS, the agency charged with investigating reports of child abuse and neglect, running the state's foster care system and operating juvenile justice programs.
Auditors, citing a period of intense media, legislative and judicial scrutiny of the department, said in the audit that they tried to account for major changes during the audit period, including the resignation of former commissioner Kate O'Day and a broad reorganization of high-level staff.
In the past two years, the agency came under criticism for a $27 million computer system that failed to pay foster parents or keep accurate track of children in the agency's care, lacking investigations into abuse and neglect, and an abuse hotline that dropped callers.
The auditors noted changes under the new administration, led by Commissioner Jim Henry, including the creation of a new child death review process, improvements to the child abuse hotline and redesigned training for abuse investigators.
Other findings include:
• Of 20 high-risk abuse investigations reviewed, two were not investigated, documented or supervised thoroughly.
• DCS should aggregate and analyze its work to find weaknesses in investigations and procedures.
• Teams of child advocates across the state known as Child Protective Investigative Teams operate inconsistently.
• Abuse allegations sent to DCS by methods other than the phone line may not be processed properly.
• DCS failed to report deaths to legislators until reporting by The Tennessean prompted changes.
• The department's case management computer system, TFACTS, has improved but continues to have "numerous" issues impacting day-to-day work of child abuse investigators.
• Some volunteers and foster parents may not have been properly backgrounded before being allowed to work with children in state custody.
• Delinquent teens were not always supervised fully, resulting in some ending up in trouble and placed into state facilities.
• In some areas, delinquent youth cannot get sufficient services, and are sent "far from their homes" to be treated.
Many of the findings detail subjects raised in ongoing reporting by The Tennessean, which began in fall 2012 and led to a lawsuit against DCS over the secrecy of its child death records. A media coalition obtained records through the courts and new DCS leaders have begun publishing records online.
In the audit, DCS officials respond to each finding. The department, concurring with many findings, describes new technology being given to investigators, improvements to the agency computer system, and explains a new, rigorous way of reviewing child deaths, among other changes.