GUEST COLUMN Pity the poor children; DCS secrecy shameful

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By Kent Flanagan, Tennessee Coalition for Open Government

Tennessee Department of Children’s Services has one of the toughest, most unforgiving jobs in state government — to protect the most vulnerable children in our society from harm — but few Tennesseans know much about the agency.

Most details about Children’s Services operations are denied to the public by confidentiality required under state law to protect the privacy of the children and the families that come into contact with DCS.

DCS caseworkers are dedicated professionals with training to interact with troubled families, and they do all within the power of the laws and regulations that guide them. It can be a heart-wrenching job because law and circumstances will not let them intervene in some cases. A wrong determination or decision in other cases can result in injury or death of an infant, a toddler, a child or a teenager.

The past couple of years have been especially tough for Children’s Services as a result of many changes in department operations and personnel, in addition to a computer system that has failed to tie together all of DCS’s operations across all 95 counties.

Although some of the problems are general knowledge, state officials outside DCS did not know how many children touched by the agency either died or were involved in near fatal incidents. In fact, DCS has revised the number of such incidents several times recently after underreporting the number of fatalities.

Reports required by law were not made to the legislature and the number of outside agencies working with DCS had been cut back by the agency.

Meanwhile, DCS continues to be under orders from a federal court case in 2000 to improve its operations. One of the plaintiffs, New York-based Children’s Rights, filed new complaints that DCS had failed to provide required reports from 2011 and 2012.

Over the agency’s 16-year history, news organizations have repeatedly tried to get more information about DCS operations.  The most recent effort involves a coalition of newspapers, broadcasters and open government advocates who are determined to make sure the public agency corrects its deficiencies and provides the best possible care for children in its charge.

As a journalist who has seen similar scenarios play out over the past four decades, I can only think that the attorney general’s office is doing everything it can to prevent or reduce the amount of information that is released under orders from Nashville Chancellor Carol McCoy.

Most of the details of the more than 200 fatal and near-fatal incidents involving children touched by DCS since 2009 are blacked out.

There is so little information that it is difficult to remember the victims were once living, breathing children hoping and looking for love.

The children of Tennessee deserve better.  

The citizens of Tennessee need to know that DCS does its best for children under its care.

The only way for that to happen is for DCS to be more transparent about how it does its job and less concerned about hiding embarrassing and deadly facts from the public.

For more information on the problems of the Department of Children’s Services, a thorough collection of articles and commentary is available at tennessean.com/section/projects021.

Kent Flanagan is executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government. He can be reached by calling 615-957-2825 or by email at kent.flanagan@gmail.com.