Tennessee took steps in the past year to improve state investigations into severe child abuse, according to an expert panel tasked with scrutinizing the Department of Children's Services.
The Second Look Commission, which reviews cases of children abused more than once, said in its annual report that DCS has been responsive to suggestions for protecting kids.
The commission praised DCS for creating new kinds of training for caseworkers and for pushing investigators who go into homes to keep better records of what they find, although investigative reports can still improve.
The commission found that new DCS leadership — the commissioner was replaced and senior staff overhauled in the first half of the year — has pushed for the kinds of changes that could reduce repeat abuse and better serve the children who have been affected.
"I haven't always been incredibly positive about DCS. What I've seen from DCS recently, with the new leadership, is they are doing what's necessary to change mindsets, and cultures, and practices," said Second Look Commission Director Craig Hargrow. "I'm cautiously optimistic about the changes that have been made and the outlook for children and families in Tennessee."
Yet the commission has recently learned that more Tennessee children have been victims of repeat abuse than previously thought.
After struggling to get consistent data from DCS during the commission's first three years of work, Hargrow now believes that about 600 children undergo a second or subsequent abuse each year. That's double the number DCS provided to Hargrow's commission some years.
The expert panel, made up of legislators, judges, doctors, lawyers, police and advocates, faced discontinuation this year but was extended by lawmakers into 2017.
DCS wants the commission's oversight and has reforms in motion that match its recommendations, said Scott Modell, DCS deputy commissioner of child safety. Some were in the works, and some were launched in response to the recommendations.
"Those (children) we have had contact with in the past, you're always questioning, 'What could we or should we have done differently?' "
Modell said DCS has a new training academy and expanded its case reviews to gather information and make changes to how abuse and neglect cases are handled. He said changing the culture among caseworkers could take time but that a push is on for improving child safety.
When DCS works with families suspected of abuse or neglect, caseworkers are writing insufficient summaries that can jeopardize child safety as officials decide whether the children should remain in their homes, the commission found again this year.
And case notes are being entered into the state's computer system too slowly, often past the state's own deadline for typing reports.
"The biggest finding of the commission, I think, is documentation, documentation, documentation," Hargrow said. "When those (records) aren't timely entered, if another DCS worker wants to check the status of the case, if the information is not there, that can have a huge impact on decisions."
Modell agreed. He said portable tablets are being given to caseworkers so they can work in the field. He said their case files must be more thorough.
"We no longer, ever, want to be the reason a case is not taken to trial," he said. "We no longer want to have parents committing crimes against their children and going unpunished."
Will lawmakers listen?
Although the Second Look Commission focuses on the work of DCS, its recommendations also address law enforcement, doctors and lawmakers, among others.
Hargrow said the commission wants to be more effective in educating lawmakers this year.
"We don't want to turn into one of those commissions that meets and makes recommendations but nothing is ever done," Hargrow said. "We'll seek an audience in front of certain committees in the General Assembly."
He said health and safety officials across Tennessee government have spent the year ramping up attention on the long-lasting effects of early childhood "toxic stress" and abuse.
"We can change the outcomes for these children, not only by preventing the abuse, but by addressing it correctly once it's happened," Hargrow said. "There are still some things we have to do as a state to help these kids have better outcomes."