Tennessee's Department of Children Services plans to take cues from the medical and aviation industries to find ways to better serve children in state custody.
DCS said both industries deal with high risk, but a small margin for error because mistakes can be deadly. Much like when DCS is dealing with a child who might be neglected or being abused.
“You do not want us experimenting with things where children may die because we were trying thing out,” Commissioner Kate O'Day said. “We are taking the leanings that come out of those industries that come out of those fields and apply it to child protection work.”
This comes after Tennessee lawmakers called on O'Day to resign after it was revealed the department did not properly report the number of children who died while in DCS custody.
“It has been two years since this commissioner took over the department and they should know and have all of the issues corrected,” Representative Sherry Jones D-Nashville said. “It is just not working and nobody has a handle on what is going on.”
Representative Jones was one of the lawmakers calling for O'Day's resignation. Jones has been vocal in her questioning of DCS' leadership and the department effectiveness.
Jones, who has served as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) for abused/neglected children, said she gets calls from frustrated caregivers, grandparents and others who say DCS has failed to protect children from abusive parents.
“You don't send children back to parents who are torturing their kids. Nothing can make that right, but we do it all the time,” she said. “The problem is when I tell them what is going on and ask for answers they decide not to answer or to not give me full answers.”
One challenge DCS has faced in providing accurate information about various cases is the system Tennessee Family and Child Tracking System (TFACTS) has not worked properly since it was launched in August 2010.
The $27 million dollar system is a statewide automated child welfare information system which was partially paid for by the federal government and partially paid for by the state of Tennessee.
The system has been plagued by problems, at one point it generated more than 1,000 errors a day.
In March 2012, a Comptroller of the Treasury audit listed problems with the system, including issues with payments to foster care families and its reliability for DCS employees who rely on the system to research case records.
“I think it is important for [everyone] to understand that we are all working on TFACTS. Nobody wants this data problem fixed more than us.” DCS Commissioner Kate O'Day said. “We are working on that plan and the plan is coming according to schedule.”
She continued, “We will soon see some good data coming out of DCS.”
DCS has hired a Deputy Commissioner of Finance and Information Technology to lead the overhaul of TFACTS. It is estimated that fixing the system could cost upwards of $4 million.
Most of the corrections the audit cited are scheduled to be completed by the end of 2012, with further improvements and upgrades coming online in later months.
“We believe as we solve these immediate issues relative to data and reports that we will be able to put that vision back on track and have TFACTS be considered something that our workers actually go to as a support and a tool,” O'Day said.
Some of that data relates to the number of children who die in DCS custody or after a case file has been closed.
Nashville's News 2 was able to obtain the number of children who died through an open records request to the department. DCS did not release the names of the children or their parents, per state and federal regulations.
In 2012, DCS reports 31 children have died while in state custody, while a DCS case file was open or after a DCS case file was closed.
Four children have died while in state custody. The youngest was two-and-a-half months old in Sullivan County. The cause of death is still unknown as the final autopsy results are not complete.
DCS said autopsy completion times vary from county to county.
In another case, a two-year-old girl in Wilson County died due to severe head injury. It was determined that her death was the result of child abuse.
In that case criminal charges of murder were filed against Hiram Shelar. He is scheduled to face trial in May 2013.
Ten children have died while a DCS case file was open. The youngest was 12 days old and died from sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). In this category the children died as a result of SIDS, pre-natal drug exposure and a congenital issue.
Seventeen children died after a DCS case was closed. Of those 17 children, 10 of the children who died did not have direct DCS case opened for them. The case could have been related to another sibling in the household or to a parent who at one point was in the system as a child themselves.
The causes of death included SIDS, a house fire, medical issues and unsafe sleeping.
DCS also points out that the department investigated the deaths of 41 other children between January and June 2012. They were not included in the total released to Nashville's News 2 because DCS was not asked to investigate the children's care until after they died.
The department said it is committed to removing children from unsafe environments, but also keeping families together whenever it is safe and possible.
“We try to build something very unique and specific to that family's needs while keeping the child safe,” DCS Executive Director of Child Safety Carla Aaron said. “Many of our families can be maintained safely together but with some resources put in to support that family.”
Resources may include parenting classes, drug treatment, mental health and support from family.
“Often times we assess the family and we are looking at the entire home environment, not just the immediate concern,” Aaron said. “We know unemployment and lack of funds puts children at greater risk because the parents could be working multiple jobs to make ends meet or they are very stressed or frustrated with their situation and then that will sometimes play out in the way they treat their children.”
Commissioner O'Day said she plans a three pronged strategy to address the major concerns within her department.
The first place is with workforce. Social workers have a high risk job but typically begin at a salary in the mid-$20,000 range.
A statewide salary survey is underway to determine how to adjust pay. The department is also looking at changing how it hires social workers.
“We have got to really think about who is really the best qualified and how do we best support the people to do that work,” O'Day said.
O'Day also plans changes in work plan, specifically improving the operation of the child abuse hotline.
“You take a structured review of what you have done in your work and you discover what went well, what didn't go well and how do you line up those systems,” she said.
There are already customer focused surveys underway at the child abuse hotline central intake.
Then there is a change in the culture inside of DCS.
Some DCS employees and others have alleged the department perpetuates an environment of fear among employees who would speak up about problems they see within DCS.
O'Day said she wants the focus of the internal culture to be on safety and finding solutions to problems rather than blaming others for causing the issues.
Representative Jones is not convinced.
“I am not very confident in DCS' leadership right now,” she said. “If these children are supposed to be our future, we need to treat them like they are our future and we don't want to see them hurt.”
DCS urges anyone who suspects a child is being neglected or abused to contact the department at 1-877-237-0004 or by visiting their Web site so they can investigate.
- Oct. 4, 2012: Officials meet to discuss deaths of 31 children in DCS care
- Oct. 3, 2012: Governor: No indication agency mishandled cases
- Sept. 22, 2012:Haslam reviewing data on child deaths
- Sept. 21, 2012: DCS: 31 children it investigated died this year
- Sept. 12, 2012: Lawmaker demands answers from DCS commissioner