Tennessee Child Welfare System Reaches Milestone, Complies with 90 Percent of Reform Goals

(Nashville, TN) – Tennessee is closer than ever to making all of the required improvements to its Department of Children’s Services (DCS) and ending federal court oversight, according to an exit plan that was approved by U.S. District Court Judge Todd J. Campbell in a hearing today.

The state has now achieved an impressive 90 percent of its obligations in the ongoing reform lawsuit known as the Brian A. case, brought by national advocacy organization Children’s Rights and a team of Tennessee attorneys.

“It is clear that Tennessee’s child welfare system is a much better place for kids than it was just a few years ago,” said Sarah Russo, staff attorney for Children’s Rights. “We are excited that the state is moving swiftly in a positive direction – it is what kids have deserved all along.”

The plan approved today shows that DCS has reached all or part of 21 additional court-ordered goals, such as:

•Increasing visits between case managers and children. Between 84 and 86 percent of children in DCS placements were visited by their DCS case managers at least twice per month last year.
•Ensuring foster homes are not overcrowded. Ninety six percent of foster homes served three or fewer foster children, while 98 percent had six or fewer total kids, according to a 2014 review.
•Maintaining sibling connections. In 2014, over 90 percent of children not living in the same foster placement as their siblings either saw their brothers and sisters at least once per month or had an allowable exception to visitation, such as behavioral or safety concerns.

Today’s hearing focused on a July report evaluating the department’s performance during the past year, as well as a September supplement to that report. The reports also describe areas where DCS sustained its strong performance. For example, the department maintained reasonable caseloads – at least 97 percent of workers were responsible for 20 or fewer kids.

But DCS has not yet been deemed compliant with several important areas of the consent decree, such as its oversight of psychotropic medications as well as the use of seclusion and restraints on kids in foster care. In order to exit federal oversight, the state must meet all required improvements and sustain them for a year.

Today’s hearing comes following a leadership transition at DCS. In August, former Deputy Commissioner of DCS and long-time child welfare veteran Bonnie Hommrich became Commissioner. She succeeded Jim Henry, who has been acknowledged for jumpstarting reform efforts after they stalled in 2012. Henry now serves as Senior Deputy and Chief of Staff to Governor Bill Haslam.

“Thanks to Commissioner Hommrich’s extensive experience with this effort, the transition has been seamless,” said Russo. “We have great confidence in her ability to sustain and build on the department’s progress so the state can fully realize the improvements promised to kids.”

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.