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DCS contradicts mail policy

10:25 AM, Feb 13, 2013   |    comments
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By Anita Wadhwani, The Tennessean

Lawyers for the Department of Children's Services claim that agency files on children who died or nearly died must be transported by hand, from one location to another, in order to protect the documents' confidentiality and integrity.

But the agency's own written policies instruct staffers to use "express mail" when sending children's files in the course of doing their work.

The key difference between hand-delivering files versus putting them in the mail lies in the extremely high price tag DCS has put on the delivery costs of making its files public.

DCS officials said they will charge $55,584.44 for records of more than 200 children it served since 2009 who later died or suffered life-threatening injuries. DCS' cost estimate came in response to a lawsuit filed in December by The Tennessean and a coalition of media groups. Chancery Court Judge Carol McCoy last month ordered DCS to turn over portions of the children's file, and to submit any cost estimate for doing so. DCS filed its cost estimate last week.

As part of its total charges, DCS noted that it would be asking for approximately $11,920.88 for transporting documents by hand - which includes charges of $.47 per mile for more than 14,000 miles of driving and $16.39 per hour to pay staff for 320 hours the agency said would be required to hand-deliver files across the state.

"Because these case files contain records and information that is confidential under state and federal law, they must be hand-delivered to the Regional Offices in order to protect the confidentiality and integrity of these records," DCS attorneys wrote in the estimate submitted to the court last week.

But DCS policies posted on the agency's website instruct staff to express mail case files.

One such policy, called the "Formal File Review Process for Indicated Abuse or Neglect Investigations," directs DCS investigators to express mail files from the location of the investigation to the Nashville office for review.

"Forward via Express Mail, within fifteen (15) business days, copies of all paper documentation in the entire investigative file," the policy states. "If electronic documentation (i.e. audiotapes, videotapes, photographs, etc.) is needed, summaries will be provided or the electronic media will be reviewed where the original file resides."

Mail policies

A separate policy entitled "Due Process Rights and Reviews" instructs child protective services investigators (noted as "CPS" in the policy) to express mail records to the Special Investigation Unit ("SIU").

"The CPS Investigator will send the completed case record and any other information regarding the investigation immediately by express mail to the SIU staff," the policy states.

The policy goes on to say that once the SIU staff has reviewed the files they can then be returned by express mail, marked "Emergency Due Process," back to CPS staff.

When an alleged perpetrator of abuse requests a review of DCS findings, the policy again notes that DCS supervisors must "forward via Express Mail, within fifteen (15) business days, mail or hand deliver a copy of the entire investigative file, which will include all paper documentation and electronic documentations (i.e. audiotapes, videotapes, photographs, etc.)"

DCS spokeswoman Molly Sudderth acknowledged Tuesday that these internal policies allow "a copy of the entire file" to be sent via express mail.

Sudderth said DCS officials determined that the DCS staff in the field should not be the ones to make copies.

"DCS Legal Counsel and Records Management determined in their response that the field should not be making copies of these records for fear of missing information that we are required to release, so it was determined that the original case files were necessary to fulfill the records request," she said via email.

Sudderth noted another DCS policy directs staff to avoid sending original records unless approved by legal staff.

"We avoid sending original records in the mail for fear that they may be lost."

In filing suit, the media coalition asked the judge to redact confidential information before providing photocopies of records. The coalition is still considering a possible challenge to the agency's cost estimate.

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