Government agencies that work with children in distressed situations need to have some shield of protection against unnecessary and intrusive records of the office being made public. The news media understand this.
However, the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services has carried that protection way too far, fighting a move by several news organizations to force the agency to make public certain records that deal with cases the department has handled in which children died or nearly died.
The Tennessean newspaper in Nashville and a group of Tennessee news organizations have asked a judge to open those records, rightfully arguing that the public needs and frankly deserves that information. Otherwise, the agency gets to hide facts and circumstances that led to children in its custody losing their lives.
First Amendment attorney Robb Harvey argued in Davidson County Chancery Court this week that Tennessee’s public records law requires the agency to disclose its files on 151 children who have died since 2009. The DCS had investigated the children and confirmed neglect or abuse in 47 cases.
“The public has a strong interest in knowing what has happened to these children,” Harvey said, according to the Associated Press account of the hearing. “They were either in state custody or DCS had an investigative record on them. They are our most vulnerable citizens, and DCS is an important agency. Without these records, there is no public accountability here.”
That’s the key to this. Accountability. DCS includes many, many dedicated and conscientious employees who felt called to work in this area and fight for the rights and protection of kids. But that calling should not give them cover when things go wrong and people die.
Deputy Attorney General Janet Kleinfelter says the law requires the department to provide limited information about the deaths. “The general, broad rule is that these records are confidential,” she said. “That’s not to protect the state, but to protect the children and families.”
That’s a valid concern, but DCS is deciding these things in its favor, with little regard for the public’s right or need to know details the department is reluctant to release. The department comes across as more interested in protecting itself than in keeping the public informed about why children in its custody died.
The Tennessean originally requested records in September of all fatalities and near fatalities from January 2009 to June 2012. DCS first turned over a spreadsheet that Harvey characterized as containing “no information of any use,” AP reported. When the paper requested more information on five specific cases, DCS provided a brief summary of each. That didn’t result in much useful information either.
When government agencies fight this hard to keep records sealed, it looks as if they have something to hide, rather than the interests of the people affected at heart. Nobody likes to have things made public that make them look bad. But the people at DCS work for us. They are accountable to us. And they should not be able to hide important, pertinent information on such specious grounds.
Let’s hope Chancellor Carol McCoy agrees.