Major Problems Still Plaguing Tennessee’s Foster Care System, Despite Progress

Tennessee’s child welfare system, operating under a federal court order, is making progress in some areas but serious problems remain, according to a recent monitoring report. Issued by a panel of child welfare experts, the report examined 2006 data from Tennessee’s Department of Children’s Services (DCS), the agency that oversees more than 9,000 foster children in the state. Noting improvements in such areas as keeping children out of large orphanage-style settings and placing them more often with their siblings, the report nevertheless found that the state is moving children among too many homes and is not providing adequate caseworker oversight.

The report is the fourth expert review of DCS case files under a court settlement in the federal class-action case known as Brian A. v. Bredesen. The suit was filed against Tennessee by the national watchdog group Children’s Rights and several Tennessee law firms, with a 2001 settlement requiring comprehensive reform to overhaul the state’s long-troubled child welfare system.

“This limited review shows serious attention to reform under DCS Commissioner Miller, but also ongoing problems that continue to put children at risk of harm,” said Ira Lustbader, associate director of Children’s Rights. “We need to see the pace of reform speed up rapidly in 2007 so that foster kids can experience real improvements in their lives.”

The new report, which focused only on children’s experiences during their first six months in DCS custody, credits the department with improvements in several areas, such as:

  • Keeping foster children with families and not in institutions. For the second straight year, the report found that over 90% of children whose files were reviewed were living with foster families.
  • Keeping children with their siblings. The report found that foster children were placed with some or all of their siblings in 85% of cases, up from 80% last year.

But serious problems in key areas remain, including:

  • Instability. The report found that more than half the children, 52%, experienced two or more placements during their first six months of DCS custody, with 18% experiencing three or more placements during that time. Multiple placement moves are widely recognized as traumatic to children, who often have trouble forming new bonds with adults.
  • Inconsistent caseworker oversight. The report found that only 53% of children received required visits by caseworkers during their first eight weeks in DCS custody, and only 76% received required visits after eight weeks.
  • Over one-third of cases “contained significant gaps in documentation” in the children’s files. 18% of children experienced a change in their caseworkers during their first six months in custody.

Additionally, the report found that DCS has made progress in data collection and tracking on issues affecting minority children, as well as in targeted racial “disparity reduction strategies” in Shelby, Davidson, Knox and Madison counties. However, problems remain in recruiting more foster homes for African-American children, maintaining foster children’s contacts with relatives and identifying relatives who can provide safe and stable permanent homes for foster children.

“There’s still a lot of work to be done under this important settlement, but we’re glad there is strong DCS leadership in place right now,” said Nashville-based David L. Raybin, part of the attorney team for the children in the Brian A. case.

A comprehensive monitoring report on all reforms to DCS required under a settlement agreement between Tennessee and Children’s Rights is expected by mid-2007.

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