DCS chief says kids accounted for, despite bad data

10:41 AM, Oct 11, 2012   |    comments
Department of Children's Services chief Kate O'Day says her agency can account for every child brought to its attention who suffered severe and repeat child abuse. - JOHN PARTIPILO / THE TENNESSEAN
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By Anita Wadhwani | The Tennessean

Department of Children's Services chief Kate O'Day appeared before a state commission examining cases of severe child abuse on Wednesday to give context to a report that her agency had provided inaccurate statistics for the group to examine.

"I know you've been reading all about us including in this morning's paper," O'Day said, addressing members of the Second Look Commission, a panel of lawmakers, police officers, district attorneys, child advocates and others who review how child abuse cases are handled.

"I'm here to tell you that the safety of children is a key priority for this administration. I welcome these conversations. We are very much wanting to be data driven in all our conversations."

The agency can account for every child brought to its attention who suffered severe and repeat child abuse, she told the group.

But the 256 child victims of repeat and severe abuse that the agency provided the commission in 2010 was an undercount for that year, she said.

And the data DCS staff delivered to the group in 2011 that set that number at 675 was an over-count that included 2010 cases, making year-over-year comparisons impossible.

"I believe we have all the cases accounted for, but probably more fell into the 2010-2011 cohort (the 2011 fiscal year)," she said.

"I don't think that would have affected your recommendations," she said. "The only thing we do not know is the trend data."

But the commission did use the department data as a basis for its recommendations in 2011.

The report analyzed the numbers as a whole to provide a snapshot of abused Tennessee children in 2010. The commission then calculated that 77 percent of repeat child abuse cases involved sex abuse. That was one of the reasons the commission recommended focusing on inconsistent child protection practices at the county level.

The commission also calculated that 45 percent of cases involved mental health issues. That prompted the commission to recommend more training statewide.

That information no longer is an accurate snapshot of 2010 child abuse victims.

And Second Look Commission Executive Director Craig Hargrove presented data to child welfare groups that startled many: a dramatic increase in victims, from 263 to 675 -- over just one year -- a statistic he learned this week was incorrect.

"It's disappointing to be without accurate data," Hargrove said.

Hargrove stressed that the inaccuracies don't invalidate nearly two years' worth of work by the commission.

The commission does most of its work analyzing a random sample of children's individual cases, from the first report of abuse to a second -- or third or more in some cases -- to learn whether the system could have worked better. Last year, the commission examined about 25 cases, he said.

5 cases examined

This year, the commission decided to give each case an even deeper look, whittling down the list to examine just five in regular meetings over the course of a year.

"Despite some problems with the numbers, we are still looking at real cases and real children," he said. "We still made real findings and real recommendations, and we will push forward."

Knox County District Attorney Randy McNally asked his colleagues to focus on the cases before them, not aggregate data.

"We already know we have significant problems," he said. "Are we going to beat up on the data? We're missing the boat here. If the data was absolutely perfect when you look at your spreadsheet, what does that mean? I worry we are in the details and to say that DCS should have done something different or give better numbers is not fair. We've let this situation boil for years."

But commission member Dr. Debra Quarles Mills, a pediatrician from East Tennessee State University, said having correct numbers is critical.

"If you have data, you can do something that makes a difference," she said.

For example, in the case of children exposed to methamphetamine, she said "data can tell you how many are returned to their parents. What's the success rate?"

"I'm not pointing a finger, but I'm saying that when we collect data we can put it to good use," Mills said.

Accurate trend data will not become available until next year, O'Day said.

Moving forward

DCS has come under fire in recent months for a new computer system that has caused missed payments to some foster parents and the inability to generate key data on children in its care. Also, O'Day has conceded that the agency wasn't following the law in reporting child deaths to lawmakers. She said the agency is following the law now.

Last week, Gov. Bill Haslam, who described himself as a "data geek," said in response to some of the controversy that he "didn't feel good about some of our communications, both in terms of data and in terms of how do we respond to all of the interested parties."

Wednesday, Haslam spokesman Dave Smith said: "It's our understanding that the department will be able to provide trending analysis going forward, and as the governor mentioned in the meeting with The Tennessean, he's data-driven, and we're always looking at ways to improve how it's collected and processed in any department."

O'Day said she also was working hard to overcome those issues.

"This department has historically faced data issues, and our current conversation is a direct result of those issues," she said. "We are working very hard to overcome these long-standing challenges by building the foundation necessary for the department to produce actionable data analysis."

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