‘Disappointing’ Progress for Tennessee’s Foster Care System, Report Finds

New Leadership Has Opportunity to Get Reform Back on Track

(New York, NY) — Following years of steady improvement, the reform of Tennessee’s child welfare system stalled in 2012, leaving some kids waiting too long for workers to investigate abuse allegations, and many older youth ill-prepared for life after state care, according to a report filed today. This occurred amid public struggles to implement a new computer system, track and review child deaths and overcome management issues.

“The pace of progress during this monitoring period has been disappointing,” a team of court-appointed monitors wrote in their evaluation of the 2012 performance of the Department of Children Services (DCS). The report is the 10th issued under a reform effort known as the Brian A. lawsuit, which was brought by national advocacy organization Children’s Rights and a team of Tennessee attorneys. The release of the report was delayed because of problems retrieving reliable data from the DCS computer system.

“There were real setbacks at DCS in 2012. Tennessee was unable to build on prior years of progress to ensure all kids get the services and protections they need,” said Ira Lustbader, associate director of Children’s Rights. “However, new leadership has been forthcoming about the areas where kids and families are not being served well, and is committed to getting the reform back on track.”

Despite difficulties, the report found some improvements during 2012. Kids were moved between foster homes less often–93 percent had two or fewer placements in the last 12 months, up from 89 percent in 2011. The child abuse hotline dropped far fewer calls and averaged shorter wait times. And DCS bettered its performance in holding initial planning meetings with family members and other supportive people in children’s lives. Just 74 percent of kids had meetings upon entering foster care in the third quarter of 2011, compared to 90 percent in the fourth quarter of 2012.

But serious concerns remained.

* Workers took too long to make contact with children after allegations of abuse or neglect. Only about 60 percent of children who may have been in imminent danger were seen within 24 hours.

* Older youth were not being prepared to transition to adulthood. In 73 percent of cases reviewed, independent living plans did not indicate how young people would financially support themselves after care. More than half the plans lacked goals for employment or education, and 59 percent did not even mention where youth would live as adults.

* The quality of casework lagged. Both workers’ assessments of children and families and their case planning were deemed appropriate in only half the cases reviewed.

The report also cites problems in the ability of DCS to record and examine its work. For example, despite advances in developing reliable data, DCS still could not report on some important measures, such as the number of cases that caseworkers and supervisors oversaw, how often workers diligently searched for family members to care for kids, and the timeliness in which DCS filed to terminate parental rights when families could not be reunified.

The latest report comes at a time of transition for DCS. In early 2013, former Commissioner Kathryn O’Day resigned, and Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Commissioner Jim Henry became interim head ofDCS. Henry was named permanent DCS Commissioner soon after, and “moved quickly to begin to address the concerns that had received public attention and to do so with openness and transparency,” the report states.

“The new leadership is taking a strong step in a positive direction. They already have revised the way DCS tracks and reviews child deaths, and we will be watching closely to make sure other problems are fixed,” said Lustbader. “We are eager to collaborate with Commissioner Henry and his team to ensure Tennessee’s kids get the safety and supports they’ve been promised.”

Filed in 2000 by Children’s Rights and co-counsel on behalf of all children in state custody, the class action known as Brian A. v. Haslam charged Tennessee’s mismanaged child welfare system with violating children’s constitutional rights and causing them irreparable physical and emotional harm. Co-counsel includes a team of Tennessee attorneys including David Raybin of Hollins, Raybin & Weissman and Jacqueline Dixon of Weatherly, McNally & Dixon in Nashville; Robert Louis Hutton of Glankler Brown in Memphis; and Wade Davies of Ritchie, Fels & Dillard in Knoxville.