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(Memphis) WREG uncovers new details about children who died in the care of the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services.  A review of files reveals red flags about the children’s care and the agency’s role in it.

Homicide by blunt force trauma, drownings, suffocation. That’s the way children died right here in Shelby County. Children who were supposed to be protected by the Department of Children’s Services.

“It doesn’t look good for any of us if a child dies, so none of us want that to happen,” says Rep. John Deberry of Memphis.

These are kids who were neglected by their own families, and now, there are questions about whether the agency paid to care for them has done the same. Rep. Deberry joined other lawmakers, raising questions about DCS after learning 31 kids died in the first half of 2012 who had prior contact with the Department.

Deberry once chaired the now defunct Children and Family Affairs Committee and now serves on the Civil Justice Committee.  Members often hear issues related DCS.

“Folks are just not in the mood anymore for the same old rhetoric, the same old song and dance, the same old dog and pony show, they’ve had enough and they want answers and I think that’s a good thing, I think it will change the culture,” Deberry says.

Getting those answers hasn’t been easy. In fact, we can’t even tell you how many kids have died under DCS’ watch over the past year because the agency has given out different figures and now refuses to clarify.

WREG asked for details, about Shelby County specifically, during the years 2008 to 2012.
A spokesperson initially sent us a list of 27 children. When we pressed for more, we got a second sheet with 26 deaths.

However, there’s little information about the agency’s role in the child’s life, and more importantly what it did to help prevent the child from death.

Carla Aaron is the Executive Director of Child Safety at DCS. “We can’t determine that we did anything negligible that impacted the child’s death,” said Aaron in an October 2012 interview.

Unfortunately, we don’t know that. Numerous times, DCS lists “prior involvement not pertinent to the child fatality” related to its involvement in the child’s life prior to and after the fatality.

“Any child death is horrible, but I think at some level we have to realize some of these are going to occur whether DCS is involved or not,” added Aaron.

A look into edited files from the agency reveals that may not be true. The On Your Side Investigators asked DCS for the full, case files for the Shelby County fatalities.

When the Department refused, we joined a coalition of media outlets suing for the records.  We’re still waiting on those.  In the meantime, four files came to us by court order, and they do reveal some red flags.

For example, a 16-year-old was killed in a car accident in the summer of 2011.
Before he died, he’d been missing for two months from his state sponsored foster home.

In an emailed response, DCS Spokesperson Molly Sudderth said the following. “…If a child runs from a placement the department exhausts every means possible to locate the child as quickly as possible. First, staff contact law enforcement and work with them to located the child. DCS staff will also notify the department’s Internal Affairs division to initiate an investigation.”

Then there’s the 11-month-old boy who died at a domestic violence shelter where his family was living. We know he’d recently been treated for pneumonia and mom missed a follow up visit to the doctor. The medical examiner couldn’t determine the cause of death and said trauma wasn’t involved.

However, it’s questionable why he was there in the first place. DCS had three cases on the child within six months of the fatality, including one for physical and psychological abuse still open at the time of his death.

Sudderth stated the following about why workers left the child with the family, “It was believed that the mother had removed the children from the abusive situation with the boyfriend and had moved to the shelter for help. The report states she had made an effort to get the children into counseling and appeared to be making decisions aimed at protecting them.”

Despite this new information, the pages obtained in the four cases only represent a portion of what’s in the children’s entire file. The limited information mainly covers DCS’ interaction after the fatality, still leaving questions about its role prior to their deaths.

Deberry says he hopes to not only get answers about how the children died, but about the best ways to prevent it from happening in the future. “Even if it was unpreventable, and I hate saying that, but if we say it’s unpreventable, let’s make sure from this point on that it doesn’t happen again.”

The agency’s commissioner of two years, Kate O’Day, resigned earlier this month. We reached out to Interim Commissioner James Henry for an interview, so far he’s declined.

For more on this investigation: