A Davidson County chancellor ordered the Department of Children Services on Wednesday to release more detailed information about the death or near death of four children in the DCS system within 10 days.
The judge also ordered DCS to make arrangements to release more than 200 files once privacy regulations to protect privileged information is complete.
Nashville's News 2 along with the Tennessean, Associated Press, Chattanooga times Free Press, Knoxville News Sentinel, Tennessee Associated Press Broadcasters, Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, Tennessee Press Association, The Commercial Appeal, WBIR-TV, WREG and WSMV sued DCS on December 19, 2012 for violating Tennessee's Public Records Act.
The suit wanted a review of fatal and near fatal cases involving children in DCS custody from January 1, 2009 to present.
DCS argued that the records requested were not public records and were exempt from the Tennessee Public Records Act.
Chancellor Carol McCoy reviewed four such DCS cases under seal as part of her ruling.
She ordered the release of certain types of forms, which must be redacted.
The four cases she reviewed are required to be redacted and released within 10 days.
DCS is required to redact information about the identities of the kids, families and caretakers; identities of "reporters" of abuse or neglect; the location of labs, hospitals and schools; information required to be confidential under other statutes.
Chancellor McCoy ordered DCS to include information regarding: the cause of and circumstances regarding the fatality or near fatality; the age and gender of the child; information describing any previous reports of child abuse or neglect investigations that are pertinent to the child abuse or neglect that led to the fatality or near fatality; the result of any such investigations and the services provided to and actions of the State on behalf of the child that are pertinent to the child abuse or neglect that led to the fatality or near fatality.
The plaintiffs, including Nashville's News 2, will be responsible for paying the costs associated with compiling and properly redacting the information in the files.
The court estimated there were more than 200 files.
DCS Commissioner Kate O'Day released a statement following the ruling:
We are still currently reviewing today's court decision, but we believe it supports the department's position that, under law, DCS cannot make public the full case files of children and families receiving services from the department."
DCS has an obligation to operate according to state and federal confidentiality laws when reporting information about the children and families we work with and we have made every effort to do so.
The department, in accordance with Chancellor McCoy's ruling, will not have to provide full case files and other information requested by the plaintiffs. We will provide four case summary reports with identifying information redacted. We will also pull together an estimate of the time and costs for making such redacted summaries of the more than 200 case files requested and provide it to the plaintiffs.
Child safety is our number one priority, and under the law we must perform this work while also protecting the confidentiality rights of children and families. The department will continue to make every effort to provide information about its work according to the law.
Tennessee Representative Sherry Jones has been requesting information about DCS children's deaths for several months.
"In the beginning it was just annoying that DCS would not provide the information that we should get," she said. "As time has gone on and more people have called into the office, we see the advocates who are concerned."
Jones has called for Commissioner O'Day to step down or be replaced by Governor Bill Haslam because of systemic problems Jones said she sees within DCS.
"Over the past two years this department has taken such giant steps backwards it is just been unbelievable," she said. "I am very pleased with the ruling and the court."
She continued, "Hopefully this will help us some make the department better and save children's lives."
Jones said the information contained in the files Chancellor McCoy ordered released will give the public a better idea of how the most serious cases within DCS are handled.
"It will tell us if we are sending children back to severe abusers," she said. "We are because I have seen it every day."
She continued, "No state agency should be able to operate with no state oversight and that is the way this department has been working, in secrecy and with no oversight from anyone." Wednesday's ruling may not be the last ordering DCS to turn over its files.
Children's Rights, a national non-profit watchdog child advocacy group, sued DCS in federal court.
A hearing is set for that case in federal court on Friday.
Children's Rights is the same organization that sued DCS in May of 2000.
According to the organization, local child welfare advocates expressed urgent need to reform the state's child welfare system.
The federal complaint, filed on behalf of more than 9,000 children in the custody of DCS, charged the state with violating the constitutional rights of children and causing them irreparable harm.
A settlement agreement mandating system-wide reform was reached in 2001. It is often called the "Brian A." settlement.