NASHVILLE — Lawyers for the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services told a federal judge on Friday that they are not 100 percent certain they know how many children died while in the agency’s custody over the past few years.
U.S. District Judge Todd Campbell questioned them after it was revealed Thursday that nine more children had died in 2011 and 2012 than the agency had previously reported. The additional deaths were uncovered by a court-appointed independent monitor, not by DCS.
“It is kind of hard to overstate the seriousness of this,” Campbell said.
He questioned whether the problems were part of an ongoing issue with a relatively new computer system the agency is using and whether those problems were putting children in danger.
“My concern is whether there is a connection between the lack of reliable data and the safety of children,” he said.
The agency was in federal court to report on its progress toward meeting the goals of a 2001 settlement that DCS agreed to after it was sued by the child advocacy group Children’s Rights.
Campbell expressed frustration that DCS seemed to be moving backward over the past couple of years.
“There was ongoing progress toward achieving the goals, everybody was so optimistic that an exit plan was created,” he said. “At this point, that exit plan seems like a distant memory.”
Campbell agreed on Friday to sign off on a plan between DCS and Children’s Rights that would allow the nonprofit group access to the DCS internal reviews of all child fatalities over the past two years.
The department also agreed to work with Children’s Rights and the independent monitors to overhaul its fatality review process.
“It’s hard to imagine a greater tragedy than someone removed from their home and taken into DCS custody for their protection who dies,” Ira Lustbader, associate director of Children’s Rights, told the court.
Gov. Bill Haslam previously expressed confidence in the agency, but on Thursday he announced that he was appointing a senior adviser in his office to conduct an analysis of DCS operations.
DCS spokeswoman Molly Sudderth on Friday said the department is still investigating how the nine deaths were overlooked in its reports to the media and others.