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VOL. 37 | NO. 15 | Friday, April 12, 2013

State must release information in 50 child deaths

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NASHVILLE (AP) - The state Department of Children's Services was ordered Wednesday to give the media records from the case files of 50 children who died or nearly died after the agency became involved with them.

Davidson County Chancellor Carol McCoy also ordered the state to bear the cost of redacting identifying information from the records. The media organizations will pay the cost of making copies.

In September, The Tennessean requested the records of all the children involved with DCS who had died or nearly died between 2009 and mid-2012. The state produced only bare-bones summaries and later acknowledged it did not know how many children had died during that period.

In December a group of media organizations, led by The Tennessean and including The Associated Press, sued for access to the records. McCoy in January ordered the state to redact and turn over records from four cases and to produce an estimate of the cost to redact r ecords in the remaining 200-or-so cases.

The state first said it would cost more than $55,000 to produce the remaining records, but later reduced that to a little over $34,000.

At the Wednesday hearing, the media groups asked McCoy to expand which records the department has to turn over and to order DCS to waive the fee.

Although DCS is required to make records public that are pertinent to a fatality or near fatality, there was disagreement over what is considered pertinent.

Attorney Robb Harvey, who represented the media organizations, argued that prior DCS investigations of abuse allegations might be pertinent.

"It has some bearing that a child has been under DCS' watch or searchlight for three years or five years," Harvey said. "It's important for the public to see how long someone who has been killed has been under the state's searchlight."

The chancellor said she had to balance the public's right to know what its government is doing wi th the privacy rights of the victims and their families.

"The legislature set up DCS to take care of children in need, children who've been abused and neglected, and of course we need reports," she said, "but they also recognized that a lot of this information has consequences."

McCoy also said that some of the answers the press is looking for may not be available in the records.

"There were lots of errors in the files I reviewed," McCoy said.

McCoy did grant a partial expansion of the records request and ordered that the media groups must pay only a 50-cent-per-page copying cost. She told DCS to produce records from the 50 most recent files for her review by May 3.