A Tennessee judge ruled this week that the state Department of Children’s Services must make public child fatality records, allowing news organizations to investigate the high number of fatalities of children under the state’s care.
Davidson County Chancery Court judge Carol L. McCoy stated in her opinion released Wednesday that when children die under the state's care, the public interest in the details of the deaths outweigh confidentiality interests and ordered the release of the records after redacting the names of the children, their families, the officials who handled the cases, and individuals who reported the abuse.
McCoy issued the opinion after looking over four DCS reports of child fatalities following a hearing earlier this month. In that hearing, DCS argued that multiple state and federal statutes made it illegal to disclose the documents. However, news organizations argued that Tennessee's public records law requires disclosure so that the public can learn how the state handles cases of child fatalities.
"In balancing the public's right of access to government records with the burden that the disclosure may impose, the court finds that upon a child's death, DCS' reliance upon the strong public policy of client confidentiality is vitiated," McCoy wrote. "No longer can the state protect or provide for the child, and its efforts or lack thereof become a key concern."
Lauran Sturm, an attorney for The Tennessean, said the decision will allow the media organizations to investigate DCS's role in the fatalities. It is unclear exactly what or how much information the organizations will end up receiving, but Sturm said that after the four reports are handed over they will have a better idea of what information they need when requesting future similar reports.
“Everyone seems to be at least somewhat optimistic about what we’re getting and that we’re getting more information than previously,” Sturm said. “These are vulnerable populations and we want to make sure that the government is doing its job. Anything that promotes more accountability is great.”
McCoy said in her order that within ten days, DCS must hand over to the news organizations redacted versions of the four reports she reviewed. After that, the judge, news organizations and DCS will decide when the rest of the 206 reports will be released. McCoy also ruled that DCS is allowed to calculate the cost of redacting the reports before processing the remaining records, giving newspapers a chance to pay for the cost.
The Tennessean, along with a dozen other news organizations, filed a petition in December against the department after it denied the media organizations' public records requests for details about the fatalities and near-fatalities of children who were in the custody of DCS or about whom there has been a DCS file. Over 200 cases fall into that category since 2009, including the deaths of 31 children in the first six months of 2012.
“I think the judge recognized the Supreme Court case law which states that the Public Records Act is very broad and the purpose behind it is to promote government accountability,” Sturm said.“She definitely promoted that objective.”
DCS did not respond to requests for comments.
Related Reporters Committee resources: