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February 7th, 2013 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
The more we see of state child welfare agencies, the more they resemble each other.  The news seems to run in a few familiar veins.  So child protection agencies tend to either take children from homes for little or no reason, or leave children in homes where they’re obviously in danger.  They regularly refuse to contact the father when a mother is abusing or neglecting a child.  When children are killed or injured, their first instinct is to  refuse to come clean about what happened.  They often violate state law in order to keep their behavior under wraps.  When the press or state legislators start asking question, they adopt the pose of indignant victims.

Pretty much all of that is true in this case (Daily Mail, 2/5/13).  This time the state is Tennessee.  For the last 10 years, its Department of Children’s Services has been under federal court supervision after a lawsuit was filed complaining about malfeasance in its foster care program.  Neither the lawsuit nor the monitoring of the department seems to have done much good.  In the 3 1/2 years between January, 2009 and July, 2012, an astonishing 151 children died in foster care.  That’s not children who died from parental abuse or neglect, but children who were taken from their parents and placed where they would supposedly be safe.

Now it turns out that that 151 figure isn’t correct.  More children died in that time in foster care, but the agency admits it frankly has no idea of how many more.  Nine more have been identified, but no one is pretending the DCS really knows how many of its trusted foster parents killed the kids in their care or let them die.

That strongly suggests an incompetently run state agency, and sure enough, its Commisioner, Kate O’Day resigned yesterday in a move hailed by all who commented as a step in the right direction.

The embattled commissioner of Tennessee’s  Department of Children’s Services has resigned amid an  investigation into at  least 151 children who died while in their care in a three and a half-year  period…

‘She was concerned that she had become more  of a focus than the children the department serves,’ Haslam said in the release.  He wasn’t immediately available to comment.

The Republican governor last week defended  O’Day’s leadership, even after the agency told a federal judge it couldn’t say  with any certainty how many children died while in its custody.

The department previously reported the deaths  of 151 children in their custody between January of 2009 and July of 2012 but  retracted that number after a third party reported that number to be less than  exact.

They now say they are not sure how many have  died.

Dead Children’s ‘Privacy’ Cited in Refusal to Make Records Public

But it’s not just the deaths of 151 + children that’s the problem.  Like incompetent bureaucrats everywhere, O’Day’s approach to her – and her agency’s - wrongdoing was to cover it up, i.e. refuse the press access to information that would reveal just what they had and hadn’t done.  In what must be the most disgraceful excuse for bureaucratic stonewalling in history, O’Day claimed DCS’s refusal to give the press access to documents was to protect the children’s privacy.

DCS had since been sued by The Tennessean,  The Associated Press and 10 other news organizations to obtain case records of  those 151 children and had been the subject of state investigations of abuse or  neglect.

‘It’s something the public has a right to  know about as it pertains to the safety of children,’ Chattanooga Times Free  Press Managing Editor Alison Gerber told the Tennessean…

Chancellor Carol McCoy ruled last month that  DCS, which had claimed it was keeping the records closed to protect the  children’s privacy, had to release hundreds of pages from four cases to the news  organizations after identifying information was redacted. A decision on whether  more records were to be released is pending.

Maybe someone should explain to O’Day that the children’s privacy is permanently protected by something far more effective than anything she can provide – the grave.  The children are dead.  Their “privacy” no longer needs protecting.

But as ever, the children’s privacy isn’t a reason, it’s an excuse.  It’s an excuse to hide malfeasance by state officials from the press and the public.  Think of it as Watergate Lite.  Every scoundrel on the public payroll can think of why the people who pay his/her salary shouldn’t know what he/she is doing.  Across the country, from California to New York to Texas, Arizona and now Tennessee, it’s the same song sung by child welfare bureaucrats – we’re screwing up royally, children are dying, but don’t ask any questions.

Of course those 151 + children who died in foster “care” were among those DCS actually noticed and take action on.  Otherwise they wouldn’t have been in foster care.  Unquestionably, there were untold numbers more whose circumstances should have been investigated, but weren’t.  That’s because, in addition to everything else, DCS couldn’t manage to answer its phones.

In December a quarter of the state’s child abuse  hotline were also found going unanswered, the Tennessean  reported.

That’s some “hotline” they’ve got there.  Call it about a child being abused and you’ve got a 25% chance of being ignored.  How many of those calls pertained to kids in serious trouble from their adult caregivers is anyone’s guess.  And, given the state of foster care in Tennessee, maybe they’re better off away from the eye of DCS.  But whatever the case, it’s no way to run a railroad.  At least pick up the phone when it rings.

So the latest is that O’Day is running for the hills, but no one believes her successor, whoever it may be, will be able to make right what’s been wrong for so long.  The cover-up attitude at DCS didn’t begin with O’Day; if Tennessee’s agency is anything like those of other states, that attitude is indemic to the job.  Time and again we see child welfare officials who hide behind the fact that children are minors to keep their actions and inactions out of the public eye.  Needless to say,  smack in front of the public is exactly where they need to be.  Let the sun shine in.  Children of Tennessee will never be safe in foster care if people aren’t allowed to know what goes on there, how abusive foster parents managed to get on the state rolls in the first place, what was done to police them, etc.

We’ll see what happens, but my guess is we can expect more of the same.

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