NASHVILLE, TN — Under pressure from legal action by Children’s Rights to protect vulnerable children facing life-altering decisions in juvenile court hearings, the Tennessee General Assembly has voted to repeal a misguided law aimed at interfering with local judges’ decision-making, and sent the revised legislation to be signed by Governor Phil Bredesen.
Under the law, which was enacted last year, the state would pay the daily costs of foster care for only a prescribed number of children in each county, imposing fiscal penalties for counties whose judges commit more than three times the statewide average. The law was part of a massive budget package and sought to save state funds by pressuring judges to commit fewer children through the threat of fiscal penalties to their counties.
While the portion of the law that sought to influence juvenile court judges’ decisions has been repealed, the state has maintained a part of the law requiring Tennessee’s Department of Children’s Services (DCS) to work collaboratively with counties and local judges to ensure that they are receiving the services and supports necessary to keep kids safely in their homes and with their families whenever possible.
“This is a major victory for Tennessee’s abused and neglected children that both protects their rights to fair hearings and supports vulnerable families in order to keep kids safely at home whenever possible,” said Ira Lustbader, associate director of Children’s Rights. “We are very pleased, and we look forward to continuing our work with DCSto achieve our shared goal of creating a better, safer child welfare system for kids, without resorting to shortcuts that could endanger their lives.”
Children’s Rights first took action against the law in September 2009, and argued that interfering with local judges’ decision-making in order to pressure them to commit fewer foster children to state custody not only endangered children’s safety, but also violated their constitutional rights and the 2001 settlement of a federal child welfare class action brought by Children’s Rights and team of local attorneys including David Raybin of Hollins, Wagster, Weatherly & Raybin and Jacqueline Dixon of Weatherly, McNally & Dixon in Nashville; Richard Fields in Memphis; the Glankler Brown firm in Memphis; and the firm of Ritchie, Fels & Dillard in Knoxville.
Children’s Rights was committed to fighting the law from the start, and had asked 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 — also supported striking down the law in a “friend of the court” brief asserting that the law interfered with judicial independence. Earlier this year, the Tennessee Legislature’s Select Committee on Children and Youth (SCCY) issued a report, concluding that “[t]he law appears to place judges in the untenable position of having to decide whether to protect children and the community, or whether to protect county budgets.”
A complete archive of documents related to Children’s Rights’ efforts to reform Tennessee child welfare can be found at www.childrensrights.org/tennessee.