DCS blacks out parts of child death files, keeping public in dark

8:46 AM, Jun 20, 2013   |    comments
Many of the records released by DCS contain rows of redactions that conceal the cause and circumstance of a child’s death, the nature of injuries or illnesses, and the concerns of medical professionals.
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By Anita Wadhwani, The Tennessean

Newly released records from the Department of Children's Services contain substantial redactions of information that prevent the public from learning in some cases how children died, a Tennessean review has found.

One DCS file describes a 17-month-old girl found not breathing and blue after her afternoon nap. Her family had a "vast history" of DCS interventions that stretched back eight years. But lengthy redactions conceal doctors' conclusions about whether the toddler had suffered abuse or neglect before her death.

Those omissions from her file make it impossible to learn why an otherwise healthy child simply died. DCS notes say the agency closed the case without finding child abuse or neglect and before the agency had viewed the autopsy.

The girl's records are among 44 newly released DCS case files of children who had been the subject of a child abuse or neglect report at some point before they died or suffered critical injuries in the latter half of 2011 and early 2012. The files were released under court order after The Tennessean led a coalition of media groups in filing a lawsuit to gain access to the records.

Many of the records contain rows of blacked-out sentences that conceal the cause and circumstance of a child's death, the nature of injuries or illnesses, and the concerns of medical professionals. Many of the redactions appear random.

In some cases, DCS redacted autopsy results, which are routinely made public by the state's medical examiners. In other cases, DCS redactions were contradictory, concealing cause of death on some pages, while leaving it unedited elsewhere in the same child's file.

Davidson County Chancery Court Judge Carol McCoy, who ordered the records released and reviewed each one, said last week that at least 129 pages contained redactions that may have gone beyond what she ordered DCS to eliminate to protect the confidentiality of families. McCoy asked media groups to alert her to any other redactions that seemed unnecessary. The Tennessean's review revealed dozens more pages.

Deputy Attorney General Janet Kleinfelter said in court that the redactions are required by the federal HIPAA law, which makes medical records private.

However, a DCS release of 42 children's records last month did not have the same information blackouts.

DCS spokesman Rob Johnson said the agency could not answer the newspaper's questions about the new redactions, saying state lawyers instead would communicate with the attorneys representing the media.

"Normally, we try to be as responsive as we can, but your questions are about matters that are currently before the court," Johnson said.

Media attorney Lauran Sturm said the blacked-out information is not what the court ordered.

"In two orders, the court has specified the identifying information that has to be redacted from these forms, and these latest redactions go beyond that and, in some cases, make it more difficult to see what actually happened," Sturm said.

More redactions

The judge had ordered DCS to release records in batches of 50. In its first release last month, there were no such redactions and case files contained detailed information that revealed details about children's injuries and cause of death.

In the latest release, the redactions are much more extensive.

In the case of a 10-week-old boy - identified in DCS records as Case #102 - there are many paragraphs that contain more blackouts than words.

The infant's autopsy results are blacked out, as is the cause of death in at least three places. But in another part of the file, DCS left unredacted that "shaken baby syndrome" may be his cause of death.

This is not the first controversy faced by DCS over redactions.

In February, DCS officials conceded they had wrongly deleted large portions of their child fatality review team meeting minutes before releasing them to the press.

In May, The Tennessean learned that three high-ranking employees had been disciplined for removing public information from dozens of pages of internal files released to the media.

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