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VOL. 37 | NO. 17 | Friday, April 26, 2013




DCS adopts new plan for reviewing child deaths

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NASHVILLE (AP) - Tennessee's Department of Children's Services has adopted a new plan for investigating child deaths that it says will be faster and more effective.

DCS recently faced months of criticism for failures that included not knowing how many of the children in its care had died. That culminated in the February resignation of the agency's commissioner.

The department is involved in two lawsuits seeking more information about how it deals with child deaths and whether the current reviews are effective. The Associated Press is a party to one of those suits.

Tom Cheetham, who has been appointed to the newly created position of deputy commissioner for child health, said recently the child death reviews are of vital importance in figuring out what went wrong and preventing future deaths.

However, 2012 meeting minutes obtained by AP with a public records request, showed that most reviews by the Child Fatality Review Team at t hat time didn't discuss caseworkers' actions or make recommendations for improvements. Some employees involved in the reviews have said they were nearly useless.

The new protocol requires a rapid response to ensure the safety of siblings or other children who could be at risk.

Following that, a review must be conducted within 90 days of a death. The review also takes a "safety systems" approach used successfully in hospitals and the airline industry. That approach looks for weaknesses in the system, rather than just individual wrongdoing, and tries to put safeguards in place.

DCS is required by law to review the death or near death of any child in its custody. It also must review deaths or near deaths where there was abuse or neglect.

The new protocol adds two new categories for review - where allegations or abuse or neglect had been investigated by DCS in the previous three years and where the commissioner makes a special request for a review.

I nterim Commissioner Jim Henry said recently that the nonprofit Children's Rights, which is involved in a longstanding lawsuit with the department over its treatment of foster care children, has praised the new process, saying that it could become the "gold standard" for the nation.

The overhaul of the child death review process was ordered by the federal court in the Children's Rights case. The new protocol was filed with the court on Thursday.

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