(Memphis) It was one year ago that WREG sued the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services for access to records about children who died on its watch.
However, advocates say the fight is far from over.
In fact, some are calling for permanent changes, so history doesn’t repeat itself.
DCS began facing questions from the media, lawmakers, and child advocates after it was discovered that 31 children died in the first half of 2012, who at some point had contact with the department.
Initially the agency wouldn’t provide details or release records regarding the deaths, citing privacy laws.
WREG joined a media coalition suing to get access to records for more than 200 children who died or almost died from 2009 to 2012.
At least 15 of those children were from Shelby County.
WREG had already filed an open records request to get information about Memphis children who died from 2008 to 2012.
The agency sent WREG a list of 26 children, and included the date and cause of death, but didn’t provide details about DCS’s involvment.
The judge in the case ordered DCS to turn over redacted copies of the files from 2009 to 2012.
The information omitted included the child’s name, county of residence, and medical information.
However, even after the judge’s ruling, the On Your Side Investigators continued to press the agency about its practices.
We learned some children died in accidents, others at youth development centers, but many were left in homes where abuse was taking place.
Representative John Deberry of Memphis sits on the Civil Justice Committee and chaired the now defunct Children and Family Affairs Committee, which provided some oversight of DCS.
He told WREG, “The message has been loud and clear from folks like yourself and Tennesseans that we want these children taken care of, no excuses, no explanations, stop the dead children.”
Agency leaders say the abuse hotline is dropping fewer calls. Case workers are training with the TBI. Plus, the agency put policies in place to review cases in real time.
Commissioner Jim Henry says in 2014, DCS will begin adding more data online, like a child’s like age, gender and history with the department before the full case file is posted.
“We’re trying every way we can to be more open, we think that, that makes us better, we invite the oversight,” says Henry.
Henry recently spoke before the Senate Health and Finance Committee to provide an update.
Senator Lowe Finney of Jackson called for the meeting.
He says its critical for legislators to stay on top of what’s happening at DCS.
“What I don’t want to see, have happen is, I don’t want the legislature to adjourn in April or May and then all of a sudden they determine some immediate steps we should have taken in January to save a child’s life.”
Deberry also said, “We’ve learned that we can’t turn our heads, when we stop looking, examining, being vigilant, a child dies.”
Deberry says he’s pleased with the Department’s recent changes, but wants to take it a step further, by putting legislation in place to guarantee better protection for children.
“It’s very easy when you change leadership to change direction, we don’t want to go backwards. So I think that we as the legislature have got to look at the rules that are going to be made by the agency, a rule is one thing, a law is another.”
Deberry is planning to get those potential bills introduced in the upcoming session.
DCS will also be reporting on the most recent child deaths after the first quarter of the year.
The agency reports there have been a total of 126 deaths so far this year (based on new definition).
Of the 126 children who died, 13 were custodial and none of those involved allegations of abuse or neglect.
Regarding the 113 non-custodial deaths, the majority of them were related to abuse or neglect, and 55 had previous contact with DCS.