NASHVILLE — A federal judge overseeing changes at the state Department of Children’s Services expressed cautious optimism Monday that the agency’s new leadership can resolve some of its problems.
The tone of the hearing marked a decided change from a January hearing where U.S. District Judge Todd Campbell expressed frustration that the agency seemed to be moving backward and concern for the safety of the children in its care.
That hearing took place during a public outcry over the agency’s inability to say how many of the children it had tried to help had died or nearly died over the past two years.
DCS Commissioner Kate O’Day resigned a few days later and was replaced by Interim Commissioner Jim Henry, who was in the courtroom Monday.
Campbell said that Henry “seems to have developed a new tone at the agency, and that’s a good step.”
The agency was in federal court to report on its progress toward meeting the goals of a 2001 settlement with the child advocacy group Children’s Rights.
Much of the hearing focused on the agency’s ability to track and review child deaths and near deaths.
DCS attorney Jon Lakey told Campbell, “The process we had before was flawed.”
But Lakey said a new process developed over the past three months should give the agency accurate figures going forward.
Apart from knowing who dies, the agency is also developing a new procedure for investigating those deaths.
That includes requiring the reporting of all deaths to the commissioner within one hour and the recording of the death in the agency’s computer system within four hours. A team will review the death or near death within 90 days, and that team will include an independent physician.
Lakey said it was important to include someone who felt free to criticize the agency, when necessary.
The review also includes a process for making changes aimed at preventing future deaths.
“The point of the process is to learn so that we can make things safer for the next child,” Lakey told the court.
The policy is still under development and likely will not be implemented until late August.
“The concerns I raised at the prior hearing are being addressed,” Campbell said. “Of course we’ll see the final result.”
At the January hearing, Campbell had ordered the department to turn over its child death investigation records to the Children’s Rights. Asked by reporters about those records after the hearing, Associate Director Ira Lustbader said, “The quality of investigation documents was very poor and the investigation files themselves were grossly incomplete.”
But Lustbader said he was pleased with the new policy, which has the potential to be one of the best in the nation.
“I’m optimistic about how they handled this,” he said, “but I don’t think it will cause us to let up at all about being on top of them going forward.”
—TRAVIS LOLLER, Associated Press