Nearly a year after lawmakers launched their own inquiry into the Department of Children's Services, agency officials reported back measurable improvements in their response to child abuse and neglect reports, improved technology within the agency and more stringent scrutiny of child deaths.
A half dozen DCS officials, including chief Jim Henry, testified before the General Assembly's Senate Health and Welfare Committee at the request of Democratic lawmaker Sen. Lowe Finney of Jackson.
The agency first fell under intense scrutiny more than a year ago over its inconsistent reporting of child deaths. On Monday, DCS officials told lawmakers that beginning in 2014, they will immediately report a child's death to the public by giving out the age, gender and history of DCS involvement. The agency will then follow up with a report of whether abuse or neglect was found in the death, before ultimately posting redacted copies of the investigation files once its investigation has closed.
The agency has already begun posting investigation files of 2012 child fatalities on itswebsite.
Henry reported on a variety of other improvements, including fewer dropped calls at its child abuse hotline, better training for caseworkers, and measures to reduce the number of children coming into custody by offering parents more help at home.
Lawmakers offer to help
Lawmakers repeatedly extended offers of help to the state's child welfare agency.
Finney asked what lawmakers could do to speed the delivery of autopsy results to DCS investigators trying to determine whether child deaths were a result of abuse and neglect.
Sen. Douglas Henry, D-Nashville, asked whether the state's Human Resources department could reassess pay scales for child protective workers to offer higher salaries. Sen. Doug Overbey, R-Maryville, asked what the General Assembly could do to assist or promote DCS' adoption efforts.
Other senators requested specific information on the percentage of methamphetamine-related child welfare cases confronting DCS annually.
"There's nothing more important that our committee can do than support" the agency, Overbey said.
DCS officials promised to deliver requested information to lawmakers.
The legislature reconvenes in January, and it's not likely to become clear until then what new laws, if any, lawmakers will propose to improve the agency.