New Report Praises Progress in TN Child Welfare Reform Effort, Outlines Challenges Ahead

NASHVILLE, TN — Seven years after the landmark settlement of a federal class action brought by Children’s Rights, seeking the reform of Tennessee’s once-failing child welfare system on behalf of all children in its custody, a new independent progress report released today praises the state for implementing a broad range of important systemwide improvements — but also notes some challenges that must be overcome to meet all of the court-ordered requirements for reform.

The reforms are required by the 2001 settlement of the federal class action known as Brian A. v. Bredesen, filed in 2000 by Children’s Rights and a coalition of Tennessee attorneys. Today’s (PDF), the fifth to date issued by a committee of child welfare experts established under the settlement agreement to monitor the state’s progress, highlights sustained improvements made by the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services (DCS) in placing children in foster homes with families rather than in institutions or shelters and keeping more sibling groups together in foster care. It also credits the agency with significantly improving training for the child welfare workers responsible for ensuring the safety and well-being of children in foster care — and reducing their caseloads to manageable levels.

But DCS must work harder to improve the overall quality of its case practice, the report says — stepping up its efforts to address declines in its pool of foster homes available to take in children who have suffered abuse and neglect, reduce the number of times it moves children from one foster home to another, and ensure that children in state custody get to visit and maintain contact with their parents, especially when the goal is to reunify them with their parents.

“Tennessee has made impressive progress in its treatment of abused and neglected children over the past few years, and particular credit is due to Governor Bredesen and the DCS leadership team for their commitment to maintain these improvements at a time of statewide budget cutbacks,” said Ira Lustbader, associate director of Children’s Rights. “The state has reached a critical point in this ongoing reform effort, and it must now work hard to address the challenges that remain and fulfill all of the requirements of the Brian A. settlement.”

The report notes several areas of continued improvement at DCS, including:

However, the committee also notes in its report areas in need of improvement, including:

Filed in 2000 on behalf of all foster children in state custody (currently around 7,000 children), the Brian A. class action charged that Tennessee’s mismanaged child welfare system violated children’s federal civil rights and caused them irreparable physical and emotional harm and continued risk of harm. A settlement agreement was reached with state officials in 2001 mandating systemwide reform, but initially yielded few results, prompting Children’s Rights to file a contempt motion against the state in 2003. A new agreement was reached and new DCS leadership was put in place, along with a requirement for DCS to work with a technical assistance committee composed of national child welfare experts to meet all of the requirements of the court-ordered reform plan.

Today’s report — and a complete archive of documents related to the Brian A. reform class action — can be found at www.childrensrights.org.

Media Contacts:
Chris Iseli or Brooks Halliday // 212.683.2210