Children’s Rights and a co-counsel team of Tennessee firms and attorneys from across the state filed this class action against the state of Tennessee in May of 2000, after local child welfare advocates expressed urgent need to reform the state’s overburdened and mismanaged child welfare system. The federal complaint, filed on behalf of more than 9,000 children in the custody of Tennessee’s Department of Children’s Services (DCS), charged the state with violating the constitutional rights of children and causing them irreparable harm. Systemic problems identified at the time of filing include:
- Children were placed in large, orphanage-style institutions and other group settings at one of the highest rates in the nation;
- Children were routinely placed in emergency shelters and other temporary holding facilities for more than six months at a time, because the state had no other foster care placements for them;
- Caseworkers were overburdened and poorly trained, with caseloads that prevented them from adequately supervising the children in their care; and
- Children were bounced from one inappropriate foster placement to another, based not on their needs but rather on the existence of ‘slots’.
A settlement agreement mandating system-wide reform was reached in 2001, but initially yielded few results through several changes in leadership at DCS. In 2003, seeking to expedite implementation of the reforms, Children’s Rights filed a contempt motion against the state. The contempt action was resolved with a new agreement between the parties requiring DCS to work with a technical assistance committee, comprising five national child welfare experts, until all court-ordered reform goals are met.
Since the contempt motion, with a new DCS leadership team in place, the agency has made significant progress. For example, far more foster children are placed with families and the use of large institutional placements has been greatly limited. DCS is also keeping more sibling groups together in foster care. However, DCS continues to move children too frequently between foster care placements and fails to move many older youth into permanent homes, allowing many to age out of the system at 18 without the services and supports they need for successful transition to adulthood.
Children’s Rights will remain in place as a watchdog to hold the agency accountable, taking further legal action if necessary, until all court-ordered reforms are fully implemented.