Tennessee Child Welfare Reform Remains on a Positive Path, Report Shows

Children’s Rights Expresses Confidence in New DCS Leadership

(Nashville, TN) — The Tennessee Department of Children’s Services (DCS) “continues to devote the energy, attention and resources” needed to “maintain the significant progress that it has already made” and to improve its work in other areas, according to a report filed this afternoon by a team of court-appointed federal monitors.

The report, evaluating the 2014 performance of DCS, is the 13th to be issued under a reform effort known as the Brian A. lawsuit, brought by national advocacy organization Children’s Rights and a team of Tennessee attorneys.

Among the “most significant” achievements noted is the enhanced quality of DCS’s core case practice, or the critical day-to-day interactions between DCS workers, children, families and the community, to ensure kids are safe and healthy. For example, the percentage of children who received adequate assessments of their physical and mental health needs – roadmaps to guide the services they get – jumped to 74 percent, from 51 percent two years ago.

In addition, scores on creating opportunities for permanent homes improved over the last two years, from good case practice being identified in 41 percent of the cases reviewed to 59 percent.

The report also notes that in 2014, DCS continued to ensure children spent less time in state custody and were placed together with their siblings. The department also maintained reasonable caseloads – at least 97 percent of workers were responsible for 20 or fewer kids.

While results show that performance is trending in a positive direction, there is still room for growth. In order to exit federal oversight, the state must meet all required improvements and sustain them for a year.

“Foster care in Tennessee is developing into the safe haven that kids deserve,” said Ira Lustbader, litigation director for Children’s Rights. “More work certainly remains, but if DCS continues on this trajectory, this system can become a model of reform and success for other states.”

The report comes at a time of transition for DCS. Tomorrow Deputy Commissioner Bonnie Hommrich, a child welfare veteran, will succeed Commissioner Jim Henry, who has been largely credited with jumpstarting reform efforts after they stalled in 2012. Henry will become chief of staff to Governor Bill Haslam.

“Jim Henry has made significant progress as DCS Commissioner and has put the agency back on track to rapid reform,” said Lustbader. “We have great confidence that Bonnie Hommrich will build on that progress, and we look forward to working with her and her team.”

Filed in 2000 by Children’s Rights and co-counsel on behalf of all foster children in state custody, the class action known as Brian A. v. Haslam charged Tennessee’s mismanaged child welfare system with violating children’s constitutional rights and causing them irreparable physical and emotional harm. Co-counsel includes David Raybin of Hollins, Raybin & Weissman and Jacqueline Dixon of Weatherly, McNally & Dixon in Nashville; Robert Louis Hutton of Glankler Brown in Memphis; and Wade Davies of Ritchie, Fels & Dillard in Knoxville.