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Department of Children's Services releases first figures on child deaths since agency overhaul

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NASHVILLE, Tennessee — Tennessee's Department of Children's Services has published the first set of child fatality statistics since an agency overhaul following revelations that child welfare officials did not know how many children were dying in DCS custody.

The statistics released this week were gathered under a new process for reporting, counting and investigating deaths.

The primary concern from lawmakers and the public has been cases where DCS workers were aware of abuse or neglect allegations and may have failed to act.

The Tennessean reports (http://tnne.ws/1pUF1ss) the agency investigated 245 deaths from 2013, finding evidence of abuse or neglect in 40 cases. Not all investigations are complete, but DCS says that in 232 of those cases the children were not in state custody. However, 53 percent of those children been investigated by child welfare workers within the three years before their deaths.

DCS Deputy Commissioner of Child Safety Scott Modell said the agency will monitor those figures.

State Rep. Sherry Jones, D-Nashville, warned that the fact that most of the children who died were not in DCS custody could be misleading.

"If we have placed children with abusers — and we do it all the time — and the child dies, the child is not in DCS custody, but DCS is the entity that placed them back in an abusive situation," she said.

Jones is a frequent critic of the agency, but she praised the department's new method for tracking deaths. In 2012, Jones found DCS had broken the law by not reporting child deaths to lawmakers. Resulting scrutiny led DCS to revise its count of child deaths — increasing it at least five times before settling on a final number.

The fallout included court-ordered reforms, employee reprimands and the resignation of commissioner Kate O'Day as well as the revised child death review procedure. In addition to the statistics, DCS has posted to its website 186 individual death files from 2013, without names. The agency is scheduled to publish in-depth death reviews before July.

Although the new method of counting deaths makes comparisons to prior years impossible, DCS officials have vowed to be faster in reporting deaths, transparent with records and more rigorous in their internal investigations of cases that might have been mishandled.

"We think the public has a right to know," DCS Deputy Commissioner Modell said.

So far in 2014, DCS has opened investigations into 51 child deaths.


Information from: The Tennessean, http://www.tennessean.com

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