End of Federal Court Oversight in View as Tennessee Dramatically Improves Care for Thousands of Abused and Neglected Kids

NASHVILLE – Nine years into a historic effort spurred by the national advocacy group Children’s Rights to reform the once-failing Tennessee child welfare system, a new progress report shows that the state’s abused and neglected children are dramatically safer and better cared for in state custody — and the end of federal court oversight of the state Department of Children’s Services (DCS) may be in view if the state maintains the improvements it has made.

The report (PDF), issued today by the committee of independent child welfare experts appointed by the federal judge overseeing a class action brought by Children’s Rights and a coalition of Tennessee attorneys to reform the state-run child welfare system, cites a long list of vital improvements.

The vast majority of children in Tennessee foster care are no longer warehoused in institutions and group homes, but placed in safe homes with families well-equipped to care for them. Kids are spending far less time in state custody, and going home more quickly either to their own families or permanent, adoptive parents. Brothers and sisters are kept together in foster care rather than split apart. And the caseworkers responsible for ensuring every child’s safety and well-being in foster care are better trained and supported, and no longer overwhelmed by enormous caseloads.

“Tennessee has shown just how dramatically the lives of abused and neglected children can be improved when a child welfare system has strong leadership, adequate resources, and an unwavering commitment to reform,” said Ira Lustbader, associate director of Children’s Rights. “Governor Phil Bredesen, Commissioner Viola Miller, and the DCSstaff have put their hearts and souls into these reforms, and it has transformed the lives of thousands of kids across the state.

“While the Governor and Commissioner have paved a clear path to success, it is now up to the incoming administration to maintain this great progress and to fix the areas still in need of improvement,” Lustbader said. “We will continue to work in partnership with this administration and the next to ensure that Tennessee’s most vulnerable children continue to receive the high-quality care and protection to which they are entitled.”

Today’s report was accompanied by a proposed exit plan, jointly filed today by DCS and Children’s Rights, that specifically outlines the legal obligations and requirements the state must meet to successfully exit federal court oversight. If the exit plan is approved by the court, and the state makes the improvements specified by the new plan and maintains that progress for at least 12 months, the state can petition the court to end the lawsuit.

Among its requirements, the exit plan mandates the establishment of an external accountability reporting center designed to help sustain DCS’s progress and enable additional public scrutiny of the system. The center, which will have access to DCS data and the authority to issue public reports, will be funded by DCS for 18 months after all reforms have been achieved.

Today’s report is the seventh issued by the court-appointed monitors, and highlights a number of sustained improvements made by DCS:

  • DCS has dramatically reduced its reliance on group homes and institutions for children in foster care.Approximately 90 percent of children entering Tennessee foster care are placed with families — a significant decline from 2001 when about 22 percent of all children in foster care were placed in group homes and institutions.
  • DCS has achieved significant success in keeping brothers and sisters together in foster care. For the state fiscal year 2009, approximately 84 percent of siblings were placed together in the same foster home when they first came into care, and at any given time 83 percent of all siblings in state custody were living together.
  • DCS has greatly improved its ability to quickly move children out of foster care and into safe, permanent families. The vast majority of children return home to their parents, with 80 percent of kids returning home within 12 months of entering foster care. For those children who could not be reunified their parents, 74 percent finalized their adoption or permanent guardianship within a year of becoming available for adoption.
  • DCS has increased training and support to the child welfare workforce. DCS has increased the historically low pay for DCS case managers, greatly enhanced training for staff, and significantly reduced caseloads.

In addition to maintaining its strong performance on these measures, according to the report, DCS must make additional improvements in several key areas:

  • Improve services for youth transitioning out of foster care. While DCS is doing a better job finding permanent homes for older youth in foster care, the department must work harder to support teens leaving foster care without an adoptive family or ties to family members. These youth especially need help developing plans for life after foster care and need connections to stable housing, educational opportunities, and other vital services aimed at strengthening their independent-living skills.
  • Improve the quality of its work on each individual case and the quality of caseworker supervision. DCShas implemented a number of strong initiatives to enhance case practice, such as holding regular team meetings with youth and their families to develop short- and long-term plans to strengthen the family and keep kids safe. However, its new policies and practices have not yet been fully implemented. For example, today’s report shows meetings aren’t happening regularly, foster parents are being left out, and many meetings aren’t being tracked by state’s data system.
  • Improve recruitment and retention of foster parents, especially with respect to relatives of kids in foster care. While the state has done a commendable job of placing more children with families rather than in institutions, DCS must better engage relatives and recruit kinship homes for children in foster care. Additionally,DCS needs to improve its overall ability to recruit and retain new homes, as the steady loss of available foster families is currently outpacing the overall decline in the number of children in foster care.
  • Focus on finding permanent homes for children who have been in foster care for more than two years.The state must continue its diligent efforts to find adoptive families or legal guardians for children who have been stranded in the foster care system for more than two years. This includes a current initiative to seek outside funding to expand programs that dig back into children’s files and find family members, coaches, teachers, and former foster parents who might become a positive connection or even permanent family for that youth.

Filed in 2000 by Children’s Rights and co-counsel on behalf of all children in state custody (currently 6,000 children), the class action known as Brian A. v. Bredesen charged Tennessee’s mismanaged child welfare system with violating children’s constitutional rights and causing them irreparable physical and emotional harm. Co-counsel comprises a team of local attorneys including David Raybin of Hollins, Raybin & Weissman and Jacqueline Dixon of Weatherly, McNally & Dixon in Nashville; Richard Fields in Memphis; Robert Louis Hutton of Glankler Brown in Memphis; and Wade Davies of Ritchie, Fels & Dillard in Knoxville.

Children’s Rights and state officials negotiated a settlement agreement in 2001 mandating systemwide reform, but it initially yielded few results, prompting Children’s Rights to file a contempt motion against the state in 2003. A new agreement was reached and new DCS leadership was put in place, along with a requirement for DCS to work with a technical assistance committee composed of national experts to meet the requirements of the reform plan.

Today’s report, settlement agreement, and exit plan — and a complete archive of documents related to the Brian A.reform class action — can be found at www.childrensrights.org/tennessee.