Panel says Tennessee improved child abuse investigations

Associated Press • Dec 24, 2013 at 12:49 PM

NASHVILLE — An expert panel tasked with reviewing the Tennessee Department of Children's Services found that the state has taken steps in the past year to improve state investigations into severe child abuse.

The Second Look Commission, which reviews cases of children abused more than once, said in its annual report that DCS has been responsive to suggestions for protecting kids.

Commission Director Craig Hargrow told The Tennessean the department is doing a good job of changing mindsets, cultures and practices.

"I'm cautiously optimistic about the changes that have been made and the outlook for children and families in Tennessee," Hargrow said.

Yet the commission has recently learned that more Tennessee children have been victims of repeat abuse than previously thought.

Hargrow now believes that about 600 children undergo a second or subsequent abuse each year. That's double the number DCS provided to Hargrow's commission some years.

The expert panel, made up of legislators, judges, doctors, lawyers, police and advocates, faced discontinuation this year but was extended by lawmakers into 2017.

DCS wants the commission's oversight and has reforms in motion that match its recommendations, said Scott Modell, DCS deputy commissioner of child safety. Some were in the works, and some were launched in response to the recommendations.

"Those (children) we have had contact with in the past, you're always questioning, 'What could we or should we have done differently?' "

Modell said DCS has a new training academy and expanded its case reviews to gather information and make changes to how abuse and neglect cases are handled. He said changing the culture among caseworkers could take time but that a push is on for improving child safety.

When DCS works with families suspected of abuse or neglect, caseworkers are writing insufficient summaries that can jeopardize child safety as officials decide whether the children should remain in their homes, the commission found again this year.

And case notes are being entered into the state's computer system too slowly, often past the state's own deadline for typing reports.

"The biggest finding of the commission, I think, is documentation, documentation, documentation," Hargrow said. "When those (records) aren't timely entered, if another DCS worker wants to check the status of the case, if the information is not there, that can have a huge impact on decisions."

Modell agreed. He said portable tablets are being given to caseworkers so they can work in the field. He said their case files must be more thorough.

"We no longer, ever, want to be the reason a case is not taken to trial," he said. "We no longer want to have parents committing crimes against their children and going unpunished."

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