Report: Child Abuse Cases Expose Shortage Of Tennessee Mental Health Treatment

Jan 4, 2016

In Tennessee, victims of repeat child abuse are given special attention. Now, the latest report from a group of experts finds “missed opportunities” for protecting those children, while giving some praise to efforts by the Department of Children’s Services, which investigates abuse and oversees foster care.

Officials have determined that about 600 children suffer a second or subsequent incident of severe abuse each year in Tennessee. Most often, it’s sex abuse or exposure to a drug-using parent.

Sometimes, it’s fatal.

So it’s the sobering task of the Second Look Commission to examine what kept these children in harm’s way, and how local and state child protection agencies can do better.

Broadly, the group found in the past year that the state still lacks adequate mental health and drug addiction treatments. Children died at the hands of caregivers who were supposed to be getting help or who couldn’t afford medications.

In one case, a mother nearly died from a prescription drug overdose. Local police didn’t warn state abuse investigators. One month later, the woman took her own life and killed her child.

Miscommunication like that, between agencies, has been a perpetual concern for the commission, which wrote this year that it could “see missed opportunities that might have prevented repeat abuse.”

Repeat Severe Child Abuse Cases (Fiscal Year 2014)

Cheatham: 4

Davidson: 62

Dickson: 8

Montgomery: 31

Robertson: 15

Rutherford: 12

Sumner: 15

Williamson: 1

Wilson: 7

State total: 644

Source: Second Look Commission

A few years ago, commission members calculated that, on average, abuse allegations were reported to the state six times before a family was investigated.

After findings like that, the commission has been harsh on DCS, police, and juvenile courts.

More: Second Look findings 2012

More: Second Look findings 2013

In its latest year of analysis, the Second Look Commission did praise DCS for improved leadership, staff training, and for looking more closely at its mistakes.

The state agency also moved to provide more information to families about safe sleep habits for infants, a subject that still worries health officials. As evidence of continued problems, the Second Look report describes a child that died of asphyxia “due to being ‘folded’ in a beanbag chair.”

“State agencies must continue to collaborate … to educate parents and other caregivers regarding safe sleeping environments,” the report states.

The panel also wants to see better enforcement of court orders in cases in which children are removed from dangerous homes and allowed to stay with relatives. These “kinship placements” were often found to fail at keeping potentially dangerous parents from having contact with their children while working toward reunification.