Children’s Rights Renews Challenge to Tennessee Law Unconstitutionally Interfering with Juvenile Court Hearings

NASHVILLE, TN — Five children recently taken into the Tennessee child welfare system on allegations of neglect face an imminent risk of harm due to a new state law aimed at influencing the decisions of juvenile court judges, according to a new challenge to the law filed today on behalf of the children by the national advocacy organizationChildren’s Rights and their co-counsel in Tennessee.

The children were removed late last week from their homes in Anderson County — one of the counties targeted by the law — and now face decisions by the county’s juvenile court about whether they may be returned safely home or must be placed in state foster care for their protection. The presiding judge in Anderson County recently testified that she is influenced “every day” by a Tennessee law enacted in July 2009 that pressures judges to limit the number of children they commit to foster care through the threat of fiscal penalties for counties that exceed a prescribed limit on foster care commitments.

Children’s Rights attorneys say this not only endangers children, but also violates their constitutional rights and the 2001 settlement of a federal class action brought by Children’s Rights and co-counsel to reform the Tennessee child welfare system.

“These five vulnerable children face potentially life-altering decisions about how best to ensure their safety and well-being, and it is their right to have their cases heard by a judge who is free to choose the best option based solely on the facts of their cases,” said Ira Lustbader, associate director of Children’s Rights. “Pressuring judges to weigh the fiscal circumstances of their cash-strapped counties alongside these children’s interests violates the children’s constitutional rights and places them at risk of very serious harm.”

The law, which was proposed by the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services (DCS) and signed by the governor in July, requires counties to shoulder the entire cost of foster care for any children committed to state custody beyond a limit of three times the statewide average commitment rate. State officials have been clear in public statements about the law that its intent is to cut costs and reduce the overall number of children in state foster care by making judges think about their total number of commitments before taking individual children into custody.

Children’s Rights first took action against the law in September 2009, asking the federal judge in the long-running child welfare reform class action to issue an order blocking the law’s implementation. The Tennessee Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges — an official organization representing all juvenile and family court judges statewide — supported the move in a “friend of the court” brief asserting that the law violates children’s rights and will erode public confidence in the integrity of the judicial process if allowed to stand.

The federal judge heard testimony on the matter in October, including a sworn deposition from Davidson County Juvenile Court Judge Betty Adams Green in which she said the new law “is telling the Court that rather than thinking about the law or the best interest of children, we need to be thinking about numbers and dollars.”

In another deposition, Anderson County Juvenile Court Judge April Meldrum testified that she felt pressured to house children in undesirable alternatives to foster homes — including emergency shelters and even local jails — or to transfer children’s cases to other counties because her own county could not afford the cost of exceeding the limit imposed by the law.

Anderson County leads the state in both the number of methamphetamine lab seizures and the number of children taken into state custody due to parental substance abuse — local realities that the arbitrary limit imposed by the state law fails to take into account.

Children’s Rights attorneys also assert that the state has other, lawful means of reducing foster care placements, including appealing individual judges’ decisions it believes to be unfounded and — more important — increasing family preservation services where necessary to keep vulnerable families together rather than taking children into foster care.

The federal judge ruled on October 16 that the children who are the plaintiffs in the broader child welfare reform class action were not legally eligible to challenge the new law, but wrote that the plaintiffs had raised substantial legal claims.

“We are doing everything in our power to get these children’s claims addressed by the federal court and get this very dangerous law struck down,” said David L. Raybin, an attorney with Hollins, Wagster, Weatherly & Raybin in Nashville serving as co-counsel on the case. “Our state’s vulnerable kids must be assured that their juvenile court judges won’t be interfered with in determining how best to keep them safe, and we will not stop fighting to protect their rights and their well-being.”

Today’s motion — and a complete archive of documents related to Children’s Rights’ efforts to reform Tennessee child welfare — can be found at www.childrensrights.org/tennessee.