Latest Monitoring Report on Tennessee Foster Care System Shows Only ‘Incremental Progress’ in 2011

(New York, NY) — While Tennessee has delivered significant improvements to its child welfare system over the past five years, a report filed today shows the Department of Children’s Services (DCS) made only “incremental progress” in 2011. According to the latest report by independent court-appointed monitors, serious problems in the transition to a new computer system are hampering operations at the agency.

“Progress at DCS has slowed, which is bad for the state’s foster kids who won the right to see rapid improvements in the system,” said Ira Lustbader, associate director of national advocacy group Children’s Rights. “While this reform effort has seen great success since its launch, if progress doesn’t pick up significantly it seems unlikely that Tennessee can reach its goal of achieving full compliance with the reform plan within the next two years.”

Today’s report is the latest assessment of DCS performance under a court-ordered reform plan brought by Children’s Rights and a team of Tennessee attorneys to improve the care and protection of all foster children in the state. The report, which covers DCS performance throughout 2011 and the first full year of leadership under Commissioner Kathryn O’Day, finds “the Department appears to have largely maintained its performance in those areas [which] it had met or had been close to meeting the requirements of the settlement agreement.” In other areas, “the Department generally continues to make incremental progress.”

However, according to the report, the agency’s conversion to a new computer system called Tennessee Family and Child Tracking System (TFACTS) has prevented the collection of reliable DCS data in over 20 areas of court-ordered reform, including response times to reports of child abuse, compliance with caseload standards for case workers assigned to protect children in foster care, and compliance with required visits between case workers and children in foster care.

An internal DCS report released earlier this year identified 10,000 defects in TFACTS that remained 14 months after implementation and have negatively “impacted the staff’s ability to effectively and efficiently perform their duties and responsibilities.” And a report by the Tennessee Comptroller found that the new system was launched “in spite of the realization that there were problems,” including a significant number of defects “that totally shut off operations.”

Despite the computer system problems, the monitoring report found, according to the available data, improvements in several important areas:

  • Placing children in foster care in family-settings, rather than in institutional settings. In 2011, 90 percent of children who entered state care were placed in family homes. When the reform campaign was launched in 2000, one in five children in foster care was institutionalized.
  • Placing more children with relatives. The agency also made headway in placing children with relatives in 2011, with 26 percent initially placed with kin, compared to 15 percent in 2009.
  • Reducing the length of time children stay in foster care. Of the 11,103 children in custody between January 1, 2011 and January 1, 2012, 84 percent of children had been in custody for 2 years or less, well above the 75 percent performance standard.

The report also found problems in other areas, including: inadequate assessments and planning for children in state custody; insufficient preparation of older youth to live independently when they leave the foster care system, usually at age 18; and increased length of time to return children home to their families.

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; Richard Fields in Memphis; Robert Louis Hutton of Glankler Brown in Memphis; and Wade Davies of Ritchie, Fels & Dillard in Knoxville.

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