News outlets sue for records on 31 Tenn. child deaths

Sunday, December 23, 2012

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A coalition of news organizations is suing the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services, alleging the agency is violating the law by not providing details about 31 children it had investigated and who died during the first six months of this year.

The lawsuit filed Dec. 19 is spearheaded by The Tennessean, which has repeatedly asked DCS for the information. To date, the agency has provided only brief summaries of the deaths.

The lawsuit asks the court to order the agency to explain why the records were not provided. It also asks that the department immediately give those records to the court so a judge can review them and redact any confidential information and for the records then to be opened to the public for review.

The filing describes the Tennessee Public Records Act as “among the broadest in the country,” and says the Tennessee Supreme Court has been vigilant in protecting the public’s right of access.

“The public has a strong interest in knowing what actions DCS took — or failed to take — in order to protect them,” the lawsuit states. “This public interest outweighs any privacy concerns DCS has referred to in limiting its disclosure of information.”

The lawsuit follows the latest DCS refusal to provide records, which arrived in a letter Dec. 18 in response to a deadline imposed by The Tennessean and about a dozen other news organizations that joined the newspaper’s request for records.

DCS Commissioner Kate O’Day has said she didn’t want to identify the deceased children in the interest of protecting the privacy of surviving family members.

“These are very real issues and the reasons for these privacy laws,” O’Day said. “They’re not to protect DCS, they’re really to protect the families.”

Deputy Attorney General Janet Kleinfelter wrote in response to The Tennessean’s latest request that DCS was in compliance.

“A full consideration of the legal arguments and authorities, including those discussed in your letter of November 28, supports the Department’s determination that it has produced all the documents that it can consistent with the provisions of state and federal law,” she wrote.

Besides Nashville’s Tennessean, other media organizations joining the lawsuit include the Associated Press, Knoxville News Sentinel, Chattanooga Times Free Press, Memphis’ Commercial Appeal, WSMV-TV and WKRN-TV in Nashville, WBIR-TV in Knoxville and WREG-TV in Memphis.

The suit also includes the Tennessee Press Association, the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government and the Tennessee Associated Press Broadcasters.

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