On April 11, 2016 a federal judge ruled that Tennessee’s Department of Children’s Services (DCS) had reached all of the mandated milestones to overhaul its foster care system. The state then entered a yearlong hold period, during which it sustained its performance on every measure—the final step before requesting an end to court oversight. After the hold period, an external accountability center issued three reports continuing to analyze DCS’s progress. In February 2019, the court terminated, its jurisdiction over DCS.
In 2017 Jim Henry, former DCS Commissioner, reflected, on the lawsuit’s success: “We’ve got to be honest: we didn’t have a system here in 2000. I mean, we deserved to get a lawsuit. The fact is, we’re a much better system now. We’re better off for it, the kids are better off and I think the taxpayers are better off.”
In 2000, Children’s Rights, along with a team of local counsel in Nashville, Knoxville and Memphis, brought this legal reform campaign against Tennessee’s then-Governor Donald Sundquist and then-Commissioner George Hattaway of the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services (DCS) in their official capacities. The Modified Settlement Agreement and Exit Plan, recognizes the state’s progress and sets out the specific requirements needed in order for Tennessee to successfully complete the court-ordered improvements and end court involvement. Children’s Rights has remained very active and has continued to advocate for reform in concert with the TAC. Despite setbacks under the DCS leadership in place in 2011 and 2012 – which has since been replaced by a team led by DCS Commissioner Bonnie Hommrich – this reform effort has succeeded in helping to bring substantial changes for children in Tennessee:
- DCS has dramatically reduced its historical over-reliance on non-family institutional placements (known as congregate care) for children in foster care, which has resulted in the safe placement of thousands of children in family homes. The percentage of Tennessee children in foster care placed with families has risen and has been maintained at approximately 88 percent. The use of grossly inadequate emergency shelters and large orphanage-style institutions has ended.
- DCS now consistently places between 87 and 90 percent of children within 75 miles of home or within their home region, according to the annual TAC report issued in July 2015.
- DCS has lowered caseloads considerably: between 97 and 99 percent of caseworkers had caseloads in compliance with the consent decree from July 2014 to April 2015, according to the July 2015 annual TAC report.
- DCS has expanded the independent living services and programming provided to older youth in care, and the number of young adults receiving extended foster care has seen an uptick.
- Placement stability for children in foster care has vastly improved, with over 92 percent of children having had two or fewer placements in the previous 12 months in custody, according to the July 2015 annual TAC report.
- DCS is consistently providing more and faster permanent adoptive homes for children in foster care.
- DCS has instituted strong oversight protocols to monitor the administration of psychotropic medication to foster children, according to the February 2016 TAC report.
- A new child death review process, informed by national best practice standards, has been implemented to increase transparency and oversight around child deaths and to allow the learning necessary to help prevent such tragedies.
- The state has fixed numerous problems in its child welfare information system, TFACTS, and has expanded its reporting and data-tracking capabilities, as discussed in the April 2016 TAC supplemental report.
Brian A., a 9-year-old boy, was one of eight named plaintiffs at the time the case was filed. Brian had spent the prior seven months in a dangerous and overcrowded emergency shelter in Memphis. He was housed there with older boys accused of violent crimes and sexual assaults, and without basic mental health treatment, casework services or appropriate schooling – because DCS had nowhere else to place him.
Tracy B. was a 14-year-old girl who at the time of filing was in her 15th inappropriate foster care placement after only a year in government custody because the state lacked an appropriate place for her to live.