The longer this Department of Children's Services story goes on, the more baffling it becomes. As you recall, the original issue was that DCS is legally required to report all deaths of children who had contact with DCS to that child's state legislators. DCS was not doing this. Instead, when state Rep. Sherry Jones and The Tennessean asked for some accounting of how many children DCS was keeping tabs on had died in the past year, they were stonewalled for weeks.
So, let me repeat. DCS had a legal obligation they admit they were not fulfilling. They were breaking the law. And when Rep. Jones asked them to attempt to fulfill their legal obligations, their first instinct was to try to ignore her request.
DCS does not dispute that it was breaking the law.
This is no small matter. It should be enough to cause the state to go in and do a thorough house-cleaning. Even if we ignore the manner in which they were breaking the law — hiding dead children from the state legislature, and therefore, the public — the fact that they would willfully break the law for years is stunning.
But the part that blows my mind is that DCS continues to try to move the focus of the story away from "We were breaking the law" to "We did everything we could have for those dead kids." People! You were breaking the law! You have no credibility when it comes to telling us what you were doing behind the curtain in the area you were preventing us from looking in!
We don't believe you!
But look at the spin this past week.
In the Oct. 3 Tennessean, Governor Haslam says:
“You look at enough of these, and if you don’t have an upset stomach at the end of the day, something’s wrong with you,” he said. “It’s incredibly distressing and depressing. But I do think this: I can’t tell you I’ve exhaustively reviewed every case. But from what I’ve reviewed, I do think DCS has taken appropriate action.”
And in many of those cases, the DCS is required to meet a “clear and convincing standard” before it can intervene. [Tennessee Department of Children’s Services Commissioner Kate] O’Day said attorneys have told her that “clear and convincing” evidence means “just a little bit shy of what you need to put someone in jail.”
“That puts us in a lot of situations where things are not great ... and we’re trying to work with engaging people and encouraging them to do what they need to do, because push to shove, we can’t really force it,” O’Day said.
“It’s not an excuse, but it is the environment that we’re doing this work in, and I think it is a context that is getting overlooked.”
“The overarching issue is TFACTS,” said Bonnie Hommrich, a DCS deputy commissioner who came to the department with Miller in 2003. “None of us have the level of comfort that we did prior to TFACTS with the data system. That doesn’t mean we’re not making enormous strides.”
TFACTS, launched in September 2010, should track every child who is in custody or who is the subject of a report or investigation. Allegations of abuse or neglect, child deaths and health issues are recorded in the system.
Does this not strike anyone else as ridiculous? Even if the Tennessee Family and Child Tracking System (TFACTS) isn't up to the task, DCS had a moral obligation to bring that to the attention of the state legislature and the public. We should not be paying for a system that doesn't work, especially when kids' lives are at stake. And my God, if you haven't done all you can over the past two years to make sure that the state and the public understands that the tracking system you're being forced to use does not accurately track children, then why on earth would you think that you can use that as an excuse now?
If I give you a tool to do a job and the tool doesn't work, if you spend two years complaining to your co-workers that the tool doesn't work, but not telling me, when I find out you haven't been doing your job for two fucking years, it's not just because the tool doesn't work, you know?
The sad truth is that kids are going to die. That's just a terrible fact of life. There are horrible people out there who become parents and there are good parents who have terrible accidents. You can't prevent every tragedy.
That said, we should try to keep that number as low as possible. But here's the fundamental truth that keeps getting glossed over here — we need to know what that number is. The state cannot hide it from us. They cannot claim they don't really have an easy way to get it for us. They surely should not be able to say, "Oops, we were breaking the law by keeping the number from you but no biggie because we did everything else right. Trust us."
As a good Republican, Haslam should get this (and pass it along to the departments under him). To paraphrase Reagan, we'll trust DCS did all they could, but it's also important that we verify.