'Blank, blank, blank, blank, blank, blank, blank ... had a psychological evaluation ... blank, blank, blank,' Judge Carol McCoy said, reading one file released from DCS on Friday. / George Walker IV / The Tennessean
By: Heidi Hall, Anita Wadhwani and Bobby Allyn
The 17-year-old girl was vomiting repeatedly, unable to get through a simple juvenile court hearing. She told the judge the reason she was sick: She had taken a bottle of aspirin, plus her mother's gout pills and her father's Viagra.
The judge called emergency medical services. Responders wanted to take the girl away, and the judge threatened to order her into the ambulance. "That's fine," the mother said. "As soon as we make it to the ER, we will walk right out."
The family was allowed to leave the courtroom and go home. Six days later, the girl was dead.
Files released Friday by the Tennessee Department of Children's Services make this tragic ending of a short life seem all but inevitable. DCS had been involved with the family dating back nine years. Because the girl had two prior overdose attempts, the agency ordered the mother to keep all medications locked up,but the girl easily picked them up off the kitchen counter. Her last overdose killed her.
A visit to her house the day she died was over before it began, her caseworker stymied by a piece of poster board on the door reading: "LEAVE US ALONE." The caseworker left without talking to the family.
The girl, identified only as "Case # 66," is among 44 files on children who died or nearly died after having some contact with DCS in the latter half of 2011 and early 2012. The files were released under court order.
In December, The Tennessean and a dozen media groups filed suit to gain access to the files. In April, Judge Carol McCoy ordered DCS to produce the records in batches of 50. Friday's release was the second batch of records the agency has released.
Among the newly released files were records of 37 children who died, six who suffered critical injuries or illnesses, and one whose fate the records don't clearly explain.
The children who died ranged in age from a 21-day-old newborn whose death from severe skull fractures was being investigated by police to a 19-year-old boy. He died a week after being released on a "trial home pass" from an unnamed DCS facility. The teen's grandmother dismissed his complaints about severe stomach pains until it was too late.
At least six children died in foster homes. One 3-year-old boy drowned in a bathtub when his foster father left the bathroom. Another foster boy - identified in records as either 9 or 11 years old - drowned after falling out of a boat on a fishing trip. His foster father drowned, too, after diving into the water to save him.
Records contain several redactions
Many of the records appear incomplete, some just several pages long and missing details about the age and circumstances surrounding a child's death. In one file, the cause of death is listed on one form and redacted on another.
Others, McCoy noted, contain "substantial blackouts," making it unclear what information DCS has redacted.
"Blank, blank, blank, blank, blank, blank, blank ... had a psychological evaluation ... blank, blank, blank," McCoy said, reading one file from the bench. "That's not what I had indicated needed to be redacted."
One of the redactions McCoy flagged was the case of a 17-year-old boy beaten with an electric cord and stabbed 30 times with a screwdriver on the Fourth of July in 2011. On one page, there are three full lines of blacked-out text that appear to describe the boy's injuries.
DCS is under court order to redact a child's name, the names of hospitals or DCS detention centers, foster parents' names and counties of residence, among other identifying information. Deputy Attorney General Janet Kleinfelter said the additional redactions were to comply with federal HIPPA laws that require certain medical information be kept confidential. She said other redactions were to protect confidential juvenile court proceedings.
McCoy invited media groups to review redactions she flagged as questionable and to respond with any concerns.
DCS produces fewer files than required
DCS was ordered to turn over the 50 records on Friday. The agency produced 44. Similarly, the agency was under court orders to produce 50 files last month. It turned over 42. In both instances, DCS attorneys explained the absent files by saying the agency had never conducted an investigation into the deaths and had none of the forms required by the court.
The lawsuit sought all records of children who died or nearly died in a 3-½year span beginning January 2009 and were in one of three categories: in DCS custody, the subject of an open investigation, or whose investigation had been closed by DCS sometime in the three years before their deaths or critical injuries.
In the case of the 17-year-old teenager who overdosed, the files show that DCS officials reviewed her case nearly a year after her death.
They learned that DCS caseworkers had been aware that every member of her household had some sort of mental disorder requiring counseling and medication. Caseworkers had been to the house before on at least nine referrals for neglect, medical maltreatment, risk of physical injury and sexual abuse.
The girl died Nov. 15, 2011, after spending her last days on a ventilator with liver and kidney failure. It's unclear from the file, and its line after line of blacked-out sentences, whether the mother ever faced prosecution after DCS accused her of medical maltreatment and lack of supervision.
Tennessean reporters Tony Gonzalez, Duane Gang, Brian Haas, Nate Rau, Chas Sisk, Adam Tamburin, Jaquetta White and Tom Wilemon contributed to this story.