In the Courtroom

At one time, children placed in Tennessee foster care often faced dangerous and uncertain futures, due to a vast shortage of foster homes, high caseloads and other systemic deficiencies.

Today kids are having a very different experience in care. The state’s Department of Children’s Services (DCS), which for some time had grappled with numerous failings, has reached all of its court-ordered milestones. Caseloads are down. Caseworker visits are up. The state ceased using emergency shelters. More sibling groups are being placed together. And more kids are reunified with their families or placed in other permanent loving homes.

This is no small feat. Children’s Rights and Tennessee co-counsel reached a landmark settlement with state officials in Brian A. v. Haslam that required DCS to achieve 140 benchmarks to transform its child welfare system. While the road wasn’t always smooth, in April, Chief U.S. District Judge Todd J. Campbell determined that DCS has now met all of those requirements.

“Thanks to the dedication of key leaders, we have witnessed a massive turnaround for a child welfare agency that was once routinely harming the children it was supposed to help,” said Sarah Russo, senior staff attorney for CR. Russo commended DCS Commissioner Bonnie Hommrich and her predecessor, Jim Henry, “who jump-started the final stages of this impressive reform effort.”

The state now enters a yearlong hold period, during which they must sustain their performance on every measure. Commissioner Hommrich seems up for the challenge. “We are elated at what we’ve accomplished,” she told The Tennessean. She promised that her agency would keep making improvements even after the legal case ends.