NASHVILLE - State lawmakers are hoping to get some answers this week from the embattled Tennessee Department of Children's Services that has been heavily criticized for its refusal to release records related to the abuse and death of children under its care.
The Tennessean reports DCS Commissioner Kate O'Day has agreed to address questions from the Senate Health and Welfare Committee on Wednesday morning.
One concern among lawmakers is the diminishing oversight of DCS.
In the past two years, at least a half-dozen groups that once monitored DCS' work have been eliminated, according to The Tennessean. Others fell victim to reorganizations of the Legislature or state government by Gov. Bill Haslam or Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey of Blountville, both Republicans.
Those entities eliminated include the $1.2 million Children's Program Outcome Review Team. O'Day reportedly asked her own staff to conduct reviews of the agency instead.
Another was the Governor's Office of Children's Care Coordination, a multidisciplinary team that for nine years reported directly to the governor about how well DCS and other state agencies were serving children. Haslam disbanded his group shortly after his election in 2010.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner of Nashville called for a special meeting to investigate the department's refusal to release records. He said the reduction of oversight is a "total disaster."
"We have a job to do," Turner said. "Part of our role is to protect the people from problems of government and to step in when it's not working."
The Tennessean and a group of Tennessee news organizations, including The Associated Press, have asked a judge to open records from the department.
Lawyers for DCS have said that state law doesn't require the records to be open. They said the law requires the department to provide limited information about the deaths.
Last month, DCS attorneys told a federal judge that they are not 100 percent certain they know how many children died while in the agency's custody over the past few years.
U.S. District Judge Todd Campbell questioned them after it was revealed that nine more children had died in 2011 and 2012 than the agency had previously reported. The additional deaths were uncovered by a court-appointed independent monitor, not by DCS.
"It is kind of hard to overstate the seriousness of this," Campbell said.
The agency was in federal court to report on its progress toward meeting the goals of a 2001 settlement that DCS agreed to after it was sued by the child advocacy group Children's Rights.
Campbell agreed to sign off on a plan between DCS and Children's Rights that would allow the nonprofit group access to the DCS internal reviews of all child fatalities over the past two years.
The department also agreed to work with Children's Rights and the independent monitors to overhaul its fatality review process.