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Tennessee's child protection agency investigated the deaths of 245 children in 2013, finding evidence of abuse or neglect in 40 cases — although almost a fifth of investigations haven't concluded.

Child fatality statistics published this week by the Department of Children's Services are the first since the agency overhauled how deaths are reported, counted and investigated. Problems tracking deaths in 2012 led to court-ordered reforms, inquiries by lawmakers, intense media attention, employee reprimands and the replacement of commissioner Kate O'Day.

Although the new method of counting makes comparisons to prior years impossible, DCS officials have vowed to be faster in reporting deaths, transparent with records and more rigorous in their internal investigations into cases in which state investigators had contact with families before children died.

"We think the public has a right to know," said Scott Modell, DCS deputy commissioner of child safety.

The state investigated 232 deaths of children not in state custody, often being called to homes alongside police. Of those, 53 percent had prior contact with DCS investigators within three years — a figure Modell said would be monitored.

Abuse and neglect were factors in 17 percent of deaths. A Tennessean analysis of other DCS data — more than 100,000 investigations from 2009 to 2012 — found that abuse or neglect was involved in 28 percent of cases.

An additional 13 children died in DCS custody in 2013 — either in a foster home or, more commonly, kids taken into custody shortly before dying from injuries or medical conditions. No evidence of abuse or neglect surfaced in any of those cases, Modell said.

Eleven of the 13 had medical conditions such as cancer and heart disease. One teen ran away after a court hearing and died in another state. One died from car crash injuries suffered in 2012.

In addition to the statistics, DCS has posted 186 individual death files from 2013, without names.

DCS is scheduled to publish in-depth death reviews before July.

"You have staff dedicated to analyzing this properly," said DCS spokesman Rob Johnson. "There was a need to focus things better. You've got to measure yourselves. You've got to start somewhere to know how you're doing."

Tempered praise

One of the agency's sharpest critics, Rep. Sherry Jones, D-Nashville, praised how the department is tracking deaths. But she worried some are still occurring after DCS staff allow children to remain in dangerous homes.

"If we have placed children with abusers — and we do it all the time — and the child dies, the child is not in DCS custody, but DCS is the entity that placed them back in an abusive situation," she said.

In 2012, Jones found DCS broke the law by not reporting child deaths to lawmakers. Resulting scrutiny led DCS to revise its count of child deaths — increasing its count at least five times.

Personnel records showed DCS staff used a digital spreadsheet to count fatalities, but flaws in that system surfaced as early as May 2012. An employee was disciplined for miscounts, but she faulted the agency's approach as too simplistic.

In 2014, DCS has opened investigations into 51 child deaths.

Reach Tony Gonzalez at 615-259-8089 or on Twitter @tgonzalez.

Questions linger over deaths

Among the deaths in this week's records were some in Middle Tennessee that raised questions about DCS oversight or resulted in arrests.

• In March 2013, Somarah Smith, a 17-month-old Dickson toddler, died after suffering several blunt-force injuries to her head and torso. At the time she died, her mother and father were in jail. The father said he had called DCS in the month before her death about his fears for her safety.

Baby sitter Edward J. Benesch pleaded not guilty to charges of reckless homicide and child abuse and awaits a May 19 trial.

• In July 2013, 4-year-old Arianna Taylor of Clarksville died after multiple blunt-force traumas, leading to murder and aggravated child abuse charges against parents DeMarkus and Rawny Taylor. The girl had previously been placed in state foster care after suffering similar abusive head trauma and was returned to the parents about six months before her death, according to relatives and state records. The Taylors are due in court June 11.

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