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NPO publishes blog articles to inform and to stimulate conversation about issues of importance to NPO's mission.  All blog articles express the opinions of the authors as individuals and do not necessarily reflect the views of National Parents Organization, its Board of Directors, or its executives.  

September 21st, 2012 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
Yet another state’s child welfare agency has been violating state law by refusing to report information on the deaths of children who were being or had been investigated by the agency.  Read about it here (The Tennessean, 9/21/12).  This time it’s Tennessee.  In the past I’ve written the same thing about Arizona, California and New York.  In California, Los Angeles County is simply refusing to comply with orders by the legislature to provide information about children’s deaths to the investigator hired specifically for that purpose.  In New York the agency refuses to provide information on child death and injury, and periodically lobbies the legislature to change the law requiring that it do so.  The legislature always refuses, but the agency goes on its merry way, violating the law.  It’s not as bad in Arizona where newspapers complain only of limited access to information that’s required by statute.

In Tennessee, it’s the members of the legislature themselves who are getting stiffed.  Back in 2005, they passed a law requiring the Department of Children’s Services to inform a legislator of each child death “or near death” that occurs in his/her district within 45 days.

…DCS attorney Douglas Dimond acknowledged that the state agency charged with protecting children had been violating the law for seven years in its reporting of child deaths…

“Although the statute was enacted in 2005, it does not appear that the Department has been generating individual notifications to legislators at any time or under any version of the statute since then, but the Department will certainly begin doing so immediately in compliance with the statute,” Dimond wrote.

In short, for seven years, the Department ignored the law.  And when legislator Sherry Jones and The Tennessean newspaper finally demanded that DCS turn over information on all children who died in the first six months of this year, they were stonewalled for two months.

The figures aren’t good.  In the first six months of this year, 31 Tennessee children died who were either the subject of a DCS investigation at the time, had been recently or were in “state custody,” i.e. foster care, I assume.

Worse, this is shaping up to be a good year for DCS.  That’s because, in the previous 2 1/2 years, 233 such children have died, so 2012′s average of 62 child deaths is a marked improvement.

Now, it’s true, as state officials say, that not every death is one that DCS should have or could have prevented.  The alcoholic mother who passes out and rolls over on her newborn, smothering him, is not the same as the well-meaning mother who swaddles the child too tightly.  Fair enough, but if all the deaths fell into the latter category, i.e. regrettable but not DCS’s fault, you’d expect to see the same type of figures in states with similar populations.  To its credit, the article gives some examples and Tennessee DCS doesn’t stack up well.

A comparison to overall death numbers for Tennessee children shows that about one in 10 children who died in the state last year had some interaction with DCS while they were alive.

Of the 964 deaths of children 18 and younger reported by the Department of Health in 2011, 100 had come to the attention of or were in the physical custody of DCS before they died.

Of the 1,040 child deaths in Tennessee in 2010, 102 children had some interactions with DCS while they lived.

A comparison to nearby states puts Tennessee child death figures statistically above some of its neighbors.

In Alabama, for example, which has 1.1 million children versus Tennessee’s 1.4 million, between January and June this year, one child died who was the subject of an open case file and one child died who was in state custody, according to the Alabama Department of Human Resources.

In Arkansas, where 710,000 children live, there were four children in custody or subject to a DCS investigation at the time of their deaths during the first six months of this year, according to the Arkansas Department of Human Services.

That probably explains a lot about why Tennessee DCS failed for seven years to comply with the law on reporting children’s deaths.  And that lack of transparency on the part of the agency in turn probably contributed its share to the children’s deaths.  It’s one of the important points about transparency – it serves to limit governmental errors, malfeasance and corruption.  Everyone, public or private, behaves a little more carefully when they know others are watching than they do when they act in secrecy.  So the refusal by DCS to report children’s deaths to state legislatures results not only in a lack of information, it increases risk for Tennessee’s children.  It’s the mission of DCS to reduce that risk, not increase it.

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