Tennessee: One Young Woman’s Story Proves Child Welfare Reform Can Make a Difference

2011-porscha-mccracken-photo-kkrugPorscha McCracken’s life didn’t change overnight. But it’s tempting to think so, looking back on the day she found support and love with her foster mother, Iva Watterson. Her life has been on the upswing ever since.

Her mother’s drug abuse and neglect of her family turned Porscha’s early childhood into a disaster. Tennessee child welfare officials finally stepped in and took her and her siblings into custody when she was eight, after her mother had been accused of forcing Porscha’s sisters into prostitution.

She and her siblings bounced around from place to place for a few years until the state separated them, and Porscha, then 11, found herself living in an institution. The last facility she was in “felt like a prison.” The kids weren’t even allowed to have shoes and rarely spent time outdoors.

Finally, Iva Watterson took this troubled 15-year-old into her home. Even though it took months for Porscha to get completely comfortable, she sensed the change immediately. “She treated me as her child. She said, ‘This is my daughter,’” Porscha recalls. “She never made me feel like a check that was coming in every month.”

Looking back on the evolution of foster care in Tennessee over the last decade, spurred by the reform campaign Children’s Rights launched in 2000, a similarly critical moment had a huge impact on the transformation of the state’s child welfare system. In 2003, recently elected Gov. Phil Bredesen appointed Dr. Viola Miller to head the Department of Children’s Services (DCS).

Clearly, one person can’t remake a foster care system single handedly. But a new report by Children’s Rights’ Policy Department, based on extensive interviews with 51 stakeholders in the system, reveals that there was a definitive shift in the agency’s culture with Miller’s arrival. Paramount to that conversion was Miller’s firm belief that children belong with families and that most children in foster care can be successful when placed in family settings — and not when dumped in institutions.

A crucial factor in making those beliefs reality came when DCS established performance goals for service providers. Now the state financially rewards partner organizations when they improve their casework by getting kids back home or, when that isn’t possible, finding them new permanent families. Preventing kids from coming back into the system and minimizing the time youth spend in foster care are two of the other measures that benefit high-performing organizations.

Because it’s so difficult to achieve permanency for children in congregate care, these financial incentives, which promote permanency, also compel providers to get children out of group care and into family settings.

Gov. Bredesen and Comm. Miller’s efforts were bolstered by a major accomplishment of the previous administration. Former Gov. Don Sundquist succeeded in closing the Tennessee Preparatory School, a congregate-care facility that housed more than 300 youth when Children’s Rights launched the reform campaign. This landmark result sent a message to counties statewide that big changes could, and would, be made.

The results speak for themselves. In 2001, shortly after Children’s Rights launched the Tennessee reform campaign, about 22 percent of children in foster care lived in group settings. Data from 2009 used in this study show that figure sinking to around 9 percent. The total number of kids in foster care has plummeted during that period, as well.

“Changing those core values about what is good for kids [is what] really makes the long-term difference,” said Comm. Miller. “If you have a child welfare agency that really believes that kids deserve a ‘forever family,’ then that’s the system that you’re gonna have. That’s the system you’re gonna build.”

And Porscha? Spending those four years with Iva Watterson in a loving home certainly had a deep-rooted effect. Now 24 years old, she has a job that she loves, working for a nonprofit in Nashville. And she serves on the Tennessee Youth Council, providing insight on foster care to anyone from kids recently in care to lawyers and caseworkers representing them. Porscha lives on her own and has her eye set on college, and then perhaps law school.

Comprehensive change comes in all sizes, but it doesn’t come without commitment. Porscha wanted a better life for herself — and got it. Tennessee continues to strive in meeting its obligation to vulnerable kids. And Children’s Rights will never waver in standing up for the abused and neglected.

Stand with Children’s Rights today. Be One Too.

(Photo credit: Kristina Krug)