Federal Court Grants Tennessee Governor and Department of Children’s Services (DCS) Exit From 16-Year Lawsuit

Reporting Will Continue for 18 Months


Legal advocacy can make government accountable and transform the way children are treated by public systems.  Tennessee is a prime example,” says Children’s Rights.

(Nashville, TN)—In a momentous ruling for children in foster care served by Tennessee’s Department of Children’s Services (DCS), a federal court today ordered that the agency can exit federal court oversight from more than 140 improvement requirements in the Brian A. case, a 16-year long lawsuit brought to overhaul the state’s foster care system.

“Tennessee’s sustained compliance with court-ordered improvements demonstrates that real, systemic child welfare reform is achievable in America,” says Ira Lustbader, litigation director, Children’s Rights. “Failing systems don’t have to be the norm.  Legal advocacy can spark accountability over government and transform the way children are treated by public systems,” Lustbader adds.

When the Brian A. case was filed in 2000, Tennessee’s foster care system was beset by systemic problems such as dangerously high caseloads for front-line workers protecting children, low child-parent reunification rates, inadequate worker training, repeated financial mismanagement, and a propensity to place children in emergency shelters and orphanage-like settings. The state committed to an ambitious, multi-year reform process under a 2001 settlement to comprehensively improve its child welfare policies, practices, and outcomes for foster children and families. Today, DCS has met and sustained improvements on more than 140 mandated benchmarks to overhaul its foster care system, allowing the state to exit court oversight of those improvements and enter a final phase where an external accountability center, funded by DCS, will continue to issue public report cards on the state’s progress in key areas for 18 months.

“Tennessee has transformed what had been a problem-plagued child welfare system into one that, while not without challenges, embraces best practices and is appropriately considered in many areas to be a national model,” says the Technical Assistance Committee, which has functioned as court-appointed monitors, providing public reports on DCS’ performance for the duration of the lawsuit.

In stark contrast to the allegations in the complaint, the current experience of children in foster care in Tennessee is dramatically different:

“A case like this—fighting to help our state’s foster children, a population that is rarely seen or heard—is why I became a lawyer,” explains David Raybin of Raybin & Weissman and a member of the Plaintiff team.  Jackie Dixon of Weatherly, McNally & Dixon, also a member of the Plaintiff team, adds:  “But as we celebrate the incredible work that has been accomplished here in Tennessee, let us also remember that the multifaceted and challenging nature of child welfare work makes it all too easy for achieved reform to fall apart.  We urge government officials and every Tennessean to remain vigilant on behalf of the state’s most vulnerable children.”

The court-appointed monitors agree:  “The success of Tennessee’s reform required continued focus and hard work by DCS leadership, front-line staff, private providers, resource parents, and advocates and consistent support for that work from the Governor and Legislature.  Sustaining and building upon that success will require no less.”

Children’s Rights and Tennessee co-counsel filed Brian A. v. Haslam on behalf of all foster children in state custody. The Tennessee co-counsel team includes David Raybin of Raybin & Weissman in Nashville; Jacqueline Dixon of Weatherly, McNally & Dixon in Nashville; Wade Davies of Ritchie, Fels & Dillard in Knoxville; and Robert Louis Hutton of Glankler Brown in Memphis.  The court-appointed monitors include Steven D. Cohen and Judy Meltzer, Center for the Study of Social Policy; Andy Shookhoff, Attorney; and Paul Vincent, Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group.

For more information, please visit childrensrights.org.

# # #


Fighting to transform America’s failing child welfare, juvenile justice, education, and healthcare systems is one of the most important social justice movements of our time.  Through strategic advocacy and legal action, Children’s Rights holds state governments accountable to America’s most vulnerable children.  A national watchdog organization since 1995, Children’s Rights fights to protect and defend the rights of young people, because we believe that children have the right to the best possible futures. For more information, please visit www.childrensrights.org.