Class Actions

Tennessee

TN - Brian A. v. Haslam

Brian A., a 9-year-old boy, was one of eight named plaintiffs at the time the case was filed. Brian had spent the prior seven months in a dangerous and overcrowded emergency shelter in Memphis.  He was housed there with older boys accused of violent crimes and sexual assaults, and without basic mental health treatment, case work services or appropriate schooling – because DCS had nowhere else to place him.

Tracy B. was a 14-year-old girl who at the time of filing was in her 15th inappropriate foster care placement after only a year in government custody because the state lacked an appropriate place for her to live

Chief U.S. District Judge Todd J. Campbell, U.S. District Court, Middle District of Tennessee
STATUS: Monitoring
FILED: May 10, 2000
SETTLEMENT REACHED: July 27, 2001

In 2000, Children’s Rights, along with a team of local counsel in Nashville, Knoxville and Memphis, brought this legal reform campaign against Tennessee’s then-Governor Donald Sundquist and then-Commissioner George Hattaway of the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services (DCS) in their official capacities. The suit was filed on behalf of a class of all children in foster care who are or will be in the custody of DCS, alleging defendants’ systemic failure to protect Tennessee’s most vulnerable children and to provide them with legally required services. The suit also brought a claim on behalf of African-American children in foster care, asserting failures to provide protection and services and the harmful impact on children of color. The parties settled the case in 2001 and the court approved a settlement agreement that aimed at vastly improving the infrastructure at DCS and outcomes for children.

However, by 2003, DCS had made very little progress. Children’s Rights asked the court to intervene, and as a result, the parties reached a stipulation in late 2003. It required DCS to work with a court-appointed panel of five national child welfare experts known as the Technical Assistance Committee (TAC). The TAC was charged with advising on the implementation of the settlement agreement and monitoring DCS performance. DCS subsequently made great strides to improve the child welfare system, and as a result, the parties filed a Modified Settlement Agreement and Exit Plan which recognizes the state’s progress and sets out the specific requirements needed in order for Tennessee to successfully complete the court-ordered improvements and end court involvement. Children’s Rights has remained very active and has continued to advocate for reform in concert with the TAC. Despite setbacks under the DCS leadership in place in 2011 and 2012 – which has since been replaced by a team led by DCS Commissioner Jim Henry – this reform effort has succeeded in helping to bring substantial changes for children in Tennessee:

  • DCS has dramatically reduced its historical over-reliance on non-family institutional placements (known as congregate care) for children in foster care, which has resulted in the safe placement of thousands of children in family homes. The percentage of Tennessee children in foster care placed with families has risen and has been maintained at approximately 90 percent. The use of grossly inadequate emergency shelters and large orphanage-style institutions has ended.
  • DCS now consistently places 90 percent of children within 75 miles of home or within their home region, according to the most recent 2014 TAC report.
  • The settlement resulted in the hiring of a medical director and the promulgation of practices and policies for the safe use of psychotropic medications and physical restraint techniques for children.
  • Placement stability for children in foster care has vastly improved, with over 90 percent of children in foster care meeting court-ordered standards, according to the most recent 2014 TAC report.
  • DCS is consistently providing more and faster permanent adoptive homes for children in foster care.
  • A new child death review process, informed by national best practice standards, has been implemented to increase transparency and oversight around child deaths and to allow the learning necessary to help prevent such tragedies.

However, in addition to continued serious problems in fixing the DCS computer system (a critical component of tracking performance and providing data for front line workers and managers), the most recent Monitoring Report released by the TAC in May 2014 flags a number of outstanding areas of poor performance in “front-line” practice. These will be priority areas of focus in the coming year under the new DCS leadership:

  • Only 60 percent of children were found to have received adequate assessments of their needs, a critical aspect of social work needed to match children with the homes and supports they require.
  • Caseloads of child protective services (CPS) investigators have risen above manageable levels, compromising quality investigation work.
  • Only 55 percent of children with a goal of reunifying with their families had a monthly visit with a parent, far from the 80-percent standard.

This important court-ordered reform effort will only be complete once the state has met and sustained all the required improvements for children in the Modified Settlement Agreement and Exit Plan.  Despite problems, with much-improved DCS leadership in place, the reform effort is headed in a positive direction. Children’s Rights continues to work closely with the DCS leadership team and the TAC, and to gather information from key stakeholders, as we work to move the agency forward.