Tennessee Foster Care Report: Significant Improvements in Key Areas, But Serious Problems Remain

Six years after the settlement of a landmark federal lawsuit charging Tennessee’s child welfare agency with violating the constitutional rights of the children in its care, the state has made significant progress toward implementing major reforms, according to a comprehensive monitoring report released today–but still must address serious problems to meet the requirements of the court-enforceable settlement agreement by June 2008, the target date for full compliance.

The report, issued by the Technical Assistance Committee established under the terms the settlement agreement, examines progress made by Tennessee’s Department of Children’s Services (DCS) toward the specific improvements agreed to in the 2001 settlement of Brian A. v. Bredesen, filed in 2000 by Children’s Rights and a team of Tennessee law firms and attorneys in Nashville, Memphis, and Knoxville.

Although DCS has made significant improvements in placing children with foster families–rather than orphanage-style institutions–and keeping siblings together in foster care, it is still moving children too frequently between foster care placements, failing to provide important services for older children, and making inadequate progress toward placing children in permanent homes, according to the report.

“The Brian A. settlement has produced significant improvements for Tennessee children, and DCS has a strong leadership team in place,” said Ira Lustbader, associate director of Children’s Rights. “But the remaining problems are very serious, and we will remain in place as a watchdog to hold the agency accountable and ensure that DCS makes the sustained commitment that will be necessary to solve them.”

The monitoring report credits DCS with improvements in several areas, including:

  • Placing foster children with families and not in institutions. For the second straight year, more than 90% of children whose files were reviewed were living with foster families. The percentage of children placed in group homes and institutions has been reduced by more than 50% since the Brian A. case was settled in 2001.
  • Keeping children with their siblings. Eighty-five percent of children who entered foster care with their siblings in 2006 remained with them in their placements.
  • Manageable workloads for caseworkers. Ninety percent of caseworkers responsible for overseeing the safety and well-being of foster children are responsible for caseloads of 20 or fewer children per worker, in line with national standards. Caseworkers frequently had caseloads of 40 or more children at the time the Brian A. case was settled.

However, the report also notes continued problems that jeopardize the well-being of children in foster care, including:

  • Frequent moves among temporary homes. Too many children still experience frequent disruptions while in foster care as they are shuffled among different homes and different schools, diminishing their ability to develop and maintain stable, consistent relationships with peers and adults in their lives.
  • Inadequate efforts to find permanent homes for children. Too many children “age out” of the system at 18, losing out on the opportunity to find stable family situations through safe return to their biological parents, permanent placement with relatives, or adoption.
  • Inadequate services for older children. Many older children in foster care are not receiving the services and supports they need for successful transition to adulthood.

“DCS has some serious work ahead in making sure these vulnerable children get the care and protection they deserve, but it feels good to see some real progress being made,” said David L. Raybin, an attorney with Hollins, Wagster, Weatherly & Raybin, P.C. in Nashville and one of the lawyers on the plaintiff team with Children’s Rights. “This is why I became a lawyer in the first place–to provide a voice for those who can’t speak up for themselves–and we’ll be there for them throughout this whole process, enforcing this court order until all the reforms are in place.”

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Chris Iseli or Brooks Halliday // 212.683.2210