Image: Margie Quin, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services, photographed on June 2, 2023. Image Credit: John Partipilo
By Anita Wadhwani [Tennessee Lookout -CC BY-NC-ND 4.0] –
When a child dies from abuse or neglect in Tennessee, how much information should the Department of Children’s Service release to the public about its past history with the child — and how quickly should the agency disclose it?
The Tennessee Court of Appeals will now consider those questions in a case brought by a Memphis journalist who was denied DCS records as she sought to report on what the agency did or did not do to protect a 14-year-old boy who died from starvation in 2020.
The teen was forced to live in filthy conditions in the garage of his family’s home, and five other children in the home had also been abused. His mother and six other adult family members are awaiting trial in the case.
Buried inside heavily redacted DCS files provided to WREG-TV reporter Stacy Jacobson were brief notes that DCS had been called out to investigate multiple abuse allegations against the family for more than a decade. When Jacobson asked for the files on those past investigations, DCS refused.
On Wednesday, an attorney representing DCS argued the agency can’t turn over those files until after trial, invoking a criminal court rule typically used by law enforcement to deny records while a case is pending in court. It’s the same rule — known as “Rule 16″— that the Metro Nashville Police Department invoked to deny the release of writing related to the mass shooting at The Covenant School earlier this year. A legal dispute over those records remains ongoing.
“DCS has every right as a state agency and agency subject to Public Records Act to invoke (Rule 16) to protect its records,” Michael Stahl, an assistant attorney general representing the agency, said during oral arguments before the appeals court Wednesday.
A separate law requires DCS to release records related to children who have died or nearly died once a DCS investigation has closed. DCS’s investigation into the Memphis child’s death closed in 2021. The point of the law is to allow public oversight of DCS’s actions, Paul McAdoo, Jacobson’s attorney.
“Did DCS do it right here?,” said McAdoo, an attorney with Reporter’s Committee for the Freedom of the Press. “That’s what disclosure is really about is the oversight function.”
“To wait for a trial court in a criminal indictment situation to finish its work is going to delay it so long that any advocacy that could have been done by the public, by others, would have long passed,” he said.
A trial in the criminal child abuse case has been set for August 2024.
The General Assembly in 2014 enacted new law requiring DCS to disclose all records related to a child’s death or near death investigated by the agency once that investigation was closed.
The law was prompted by a legal fight over DCS’ refusal to release child death and near death records brought by a coalition of the state’s newspapers and television stations in 2013. A judge in that public records lawsuit ruled in favor of the media coalition, ordering DCS to provide case files with allowable redactions that include the names of children, family members and those reporting child abuse.
The Memphis reporter’s public records lawsuit was first heard last year in Davidson County Chancery Court, which ruled in favor of DCS. Chancellor Patricia Head Moskal ruled the public was not permitted to access the full and un-redacted case files while criminal proceedings were ongoing. “The interests of the public and the media must yield to the rights of criminal defendants and the integrity of the criminal justice system,” she wrote.