By The Nashville Tennessean
An open letter to Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and state Attorney General Bob Cooper: How many more kids have to die before the people of Tennessee are given access to the procedures that the Department of Children’s Services employs to keep track of children who are under its protection?
We ask this, as 18-month-old Somarah Smith is mourned after her death just three days ago in Dickson County. Somarah had been battered – with signs of trauma to the head, back and chest. Her mother’s boyfriend is charged with reckless homicide and child abuse.
Somarah is the latest case of a child dying whose family was known to Children’s Services. But more than 200 Tennessee children have died or nearly died in the past three years following initial DCS contact.
There are always questions and suspicions in matters of child abuse.
We have a renewed sense of optimism, thanks to Interim Commissioner Jim Henry’s new approach for DCS. But Tennessee’s child-protection agency has been shrouded in darkness that confounds all common sense and every measurement of accountability. Over the past eight months, The Tennessean and a coalition of media organizations and child advocates have sought access to DCS’ public records that could shed light on the workings of this $650 million agency.
But the efforts to obtain access have hit one wall after another.
Before she resigned, former DCS commissioner Kate O’Day instituted an information blackout, moved to eliminate oversight committees, and rebuffed a federal oversight panel and state legislators – all the more alarming, because she did this even as more children were dying.
In a state that has one of the highest child-death rates in the country, our government officials should display a greater sense of urgency.
Gov. Haslam and General Cooper: The Tennessean, the media coalition and the oversight committees are not the enemy. We can and should be part of the solution, but only if documents are made available and transparency prevails – starting today.