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Tennessee’s Foster Care Reform Effort is ‘Back On Track,’ Report Finds

New DCS Leadership Recruits More Foster Families, Improves Child Fatality Review Process

(New York, NY) – The new administration at the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services (DCS) has put the state’s recently-stalled child welfare reform effort “back on track” and has shown “focused and renewed attention” to the work that remains, according to a report filed today by a team of court-appointed federal monitors.

The report, evaluating the 2013 performance of DCS, is the 11th 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.

In 2010 the state was within striking distance of meeting and sustaining required changes to improve the way it cares for abused and neglected children, but progress halted over the next two years. Struggles to implement a new computer system and track and review child deaths plagued the administration of former Commissioner Kathryn O’Day. The latest report credits current DCS Commissioner Jim Henry with righting the direction of the reform.

The report notes the new administration made critical improvements last year, such as resolving computer issues that “posed a significant threat to the Department’s capacity to function,” and designing and implementing an appropriate process for tracking and reviewing child deaths. The state also managed to recruit and retain more foster families. In December 2013, Tennessee had 400 more foster families than it did in June 2012. DCS also made major investments in programs to help older youth transition from foster care to adulthood.

“These welcome improvements support our confidence in the current DCS leadership and the investments they are making to better serve children,” said Ira Lustbader, associate director of Children’s Rights. “We look forward to continuing to work with Commissioner Henry and his team, although we certainly haven’t reached the finish line yet. The state still has major work to do in order to fulfill the court-ordered promises it made to its children, and ensure they receive the protections and supports they deserve.”

Among the areas of concern, workers are still struggling with “front-line” key practice areas – data shows only 60 percent of children received adequate assessments of their needs, a critical aspect of social work needed to match children with the homes and supports they require. And caseworkers are not visiting kids frequently enough when they first enter care. Only about 57 percent of kids saw their caseworkers the required six times during their initial two months in custody. DCS is also struggling to ensure kids have monthly visits with their families when reunification is the goal. Only 55 percent of children with a goal of reunifying with their families visited with a parent at least once in December 2013, far from the 80-percent standard.

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.