What can we accomplish when we stand together for abused and neglected kids? Here are two great examples.

denise_pearlie_2008-05-24We’ve been talking a lot lately about enlisting our supporters, partner organizations, fellow advocates, and other concerned citizens in a national movement to transform the way our nation treats its abused and neglected children.

That’s a bold, ambitious goal, and it depends on many thousands of people across the United States pulling together to do the difficult work of reforming child welfare systems that have faltered or failed.

But as we are continuing to demonstrate in one state after another, it’s not just possible to achieve this very worthy goal. It’s happening as we speak.

Over the past few weeks, progress reports on two major reform efforts spurred by Children’s Rights — one aimed attransforming the entire child welfare system of Tennessee and the other tackling legal representation for foster youth in Atlanta, GA — have shown that both systems have turned important corners in improving the care and services they provide for the vulnerable kids who depend on them.

These reforms have been a long time coming, and the problems they were designed to confront were formidable.

In Tennessee, before we launched our campaign for reform nine years ago, it was not uncommon for kids in state custody to be shuffled endlessly from one foster home to another — sometimes 10 or more times each. Many children weren’t lucky enough to be placed with a family; nearly a quarter of all children in Tennessee foster care were warehoused in group homes or institutions.

And before Children’s Rights intervened in Atlanta, kids were grossly underserved in Family Court. At the time, only four attorneys worked at the Child Attorney Office in Fulton County (one of two encompassing the metro Atlanta area) — each assigned to represent more than 400 kids. Children were considered lucky if they even met the attorneys assigned to them before court proceedings at which crucial decisions were to be made about whether they could go home safely to their families or needed to remain in foster care, or whether they should be moved into adoptive homes instead.

In both places, Children’s Rights banded together with local and national advocates to take decisive legal action on behalf of thousands of children who desperately needed our help. And in both places, the results have been impressive.

Now 90 percent of children entering Tennessee’s foster care system are placed with relatives or foster families. Nearly 75 percent of children never change foster homes or move only once. Brothers and sisters, instead of being torn apart when they come into foster care, are now being kept together. Kids are also spending much less time in foster care and going home to their own families or to permanent adoptive parents more quickly.

In Atlanta, children in the foster care system are finally getting the quality legal representation they deserve. The Child Attorney Office now has 16 full-time attorneys with caseloads that average a far more manageable 63 children each. These attorneys are much better trained and are supported by a staff of investigators, social workers, and an education expert.

In a recent editorial, The Tennessean commended the state Department of Children’s Services for the difference these reforms are making in children’s lives:

In wake of the lawsuit, the state of Tennessee stepped up to its obligations and went to bat for these children, who now have a much better shot at leading happier and more successful lives as contributing members of society.

That is ultimately what our work is all about. It’s about remembering that on any given day, there are more than 400,000 abused and neglected children in the custody of child welfare systems across the country whose future hinges in large part on whether those systems can provide the protection and care they need.

It’s about remaining vigilant so that when child welfare systems fail, we take action immediately to identify and fix their problems.

It’s about building a groundswell of support from coast to coast — a chorus of voices so large it can’t be ignored, calling for big changes on behalf of our country’s most vulnerable kids.

And, as The Tennessean notes, it’s about giving those kids a much better shot at living the happy, healthy, successful lives that every single one of them is capable of leading.