Children’s Rights’ Landmark Win for Kids: Visionaries

“This is the story of how one of the nation’s worst child welfare systems became one of the best.”
— Actor Sam Waterston

Actor Sam Waterston is best known for his roles in Law and Order and The Newsroom. But he has also spent years as host of The Visionaries, an award-winning documentary series that airs on PBS and features organizations tackling some of the country’s most difficult social problems. This spring, Children’ Rights is proud to be one of the 12 nonprofits, selected from among hundreds, to be profiled.

Waterston is committed to The Visionaries because he believes in the central idea that “doing what you can about huge, intractable problems — is an idea worth encouraging.” The Children’s Rights story certainly fits that mold: it shows us how one of the worst child welfare systems in the country became one of the best.

The film chronicles the lengthy legal battle waged by Children’s Rights and our partners to transform Tennessee’s badly broken foster care system. When the lawsuit was first filed, the situation for kids in foster care in Tennessee was dire. They were kept in overcrowded emergency shelters, moved from placement to placement, denied contact with siblings and their home communities, and warehoused in group facilities.

Almost 20 years later, harnessing the power of the courts proved to be the most effective tool to spark lasting reform. Today children in Tennessee are more likely to be reunified with their families, adopted more quickly, and not put in group homes. Fewer kids are aging out of care without a permanent family, and more children get the critical assistance they need. And there has been progress in reducing the overrepresentation of African American children in the foster care system. 

No state’s system is perfect, but Tennessee has come a long way toward better serving children and their families — and has become a model for other states across the country.