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The Tenn. Dept. of Children's Services vs. the Media

The agency is locked in a high-profile battle with the state's most prominent newspaper, which has questioned its reporting of child fatalities.

Tenn. Department of Children's Services Commissioner Kate O'Day, right, resigned the day before she was due to testify before a state Senate committee on TDCS's recordkeeping and complaint investigation process. (Photo: AP/Mark Humphrey)
It's painful to watch any children and family services system in turmoil, but the goings on in Tennessee right now might be setting a new standard for disaster. The Tennessee Department of Children's Services (TDCS) is locked in a high-profile battle with the state's most prominent newspaper, The Tennessean, which has published a series of articles questioning the department's performance in analyzing and reporting on child fatalities.

This isn't the first big controversy for TDCS, which has been in tumult going all the way back to 2000 when a NYC-based group, Children's Rights, filed a class-action lawsuit against the agency. According to the lawsuit, TDCS -- which currently serves around 9,000 kids -- was doing just about everything wrong: They were placing too many kids in institutional settings and too many in "temporary" emergency shelters for sometimes six months or more. Caseworkers were buried under crushing caseloads and often weren't adequately trained for the job in the first place. And children were being bounced from "one inappropriate foster placement to another, based not on their needs but rather on the existence of 'slots,'" according to Children's Rights attorneys.

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A 2001 settlement resulted in a set of 20 performance standards that the department had to meet for a full year in order to get out from under court supervision. It's been under court supervision ever since, with governor after governor promising to clean up the mess and failing.

Now, the state legislature is involved, which is never a happy turn of events since state legislators frequently want to find somebody to blame rather than engage in a sober and sophisticated conversation about what's wrong and how to fix it. So it's no surprise that last month -- the day before she was due to testify before the state Senate Health and Welfare Committee on TDCS's record keeping and complaint investigation process -- TDCS Commissioner Kate O'Day tossed in the towel, announcing her resignation after two years on the job.

It sounds like it was a tough two years: The Tennessean series revealed that the department has experienced severe turmoil at the top. During her two-year tenure, O'Day fired more than 70 TDCS executives. But the current crop of problems really arose when the agency tried to stonewall the paper's request for records relating to child fatalities. TDCS agreed to release files about child deaths, but put a $55,584 price tag on the delivery of that information. After the predictable hue and cry from the media, the fee was dropped to the less-than-bargain-basement rate of $34,225 (the high price tag was due to all sorts of implausible sounding factors, including the high cost of copying, redacting and then hand delivering material that was available electronically).

But here's the real issue, and one that's not easily solved: In most jurisdictions around the country, the media and departments of children and family services have a long and stormy history. It starts when something bad happens to a kid and the local media finds out about it. The media proceeds to beat the stuffing out of the department, regularly driving even excellent staff to new careers and jurisdictions. So it's no surprise that departments of children and families have a history of being less than forthcoming with the media, typically citing confidentiality as the roadblock to transparency.

Breaking this toxic dynamic is quite the task. Although there are some states, like Connecticut, where an enlightened children and family services director has made a point of reaching out to the press and the press, in turn, has, for the most part, softened its hard line against the department. But it takes a sort of harmonic convergence of an smart, in tune leader and open-minded members of the media to realize that if a key societal goal of both government and the press is safe and stable children and families, then departments of children and family services and the press both have to bring something to the game. The current spectacle playing out in Nashville is not the way to go, either for the media or for children services.

Elizabeth Daigneau is GOVERNING's managing editor.
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