New Report Praises Progress in TN Child Welfare Reform Effort, Outlines Challenges Ahead

NASHVILLE, TN — Seven years after the landmark settlement of a federal class action brought by Children’s Rights, seeking the reform of Tennessee’s once-failing child welfare system on behalf of all children in its custody, a new independent progress report released today praises the state for implementing a broad range of important systemwide improvements — but also notes some challenges that must be overcome to meet all of the court-ordered requirements for reform.

The reforms are required by the 2001 settlement of the federal class action known as Brian A. v. Bredesen, filed in 2000 by Children’s Rights and a coalition of Tennessee attorneys. Today’s report (PDF), the fifth to date issued by a committee of child welfare experts established under the settlement agreement to monitor the state’s progress, highlights sustained improvements made by the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services (DCS) in placing children in foster homes with families rather than in institutions or shelters and keeping more sibling groups together in foster care. It also credits the agency with significantly improving training for the child welfare workers responsible for ensuring the safety and well-being of children in foster care — and reducing their caseloads to manageable levels.

But DCS must work harder to improve the overall quality of its case practice, the report says — stepping up its efforts to address declines in its pool of foster homes available to take in children who have suffered abuse and neglect, reduce the number of times it moves children from one foster home to another, and ensure that children in state custody get to visit and maintain contact with their parents, especially when the goal is to reunify them with their parents.

“Tennessee has made impressive progress in its treatment of abused and neglected children over the past few years, and particular credit is due to Governor Bredesen and the DCS leadership team for their commitment to maintain these improvements at a time of statewide budget cutbacks,” said Ira Lustbader, associate director of Children’s Rights. “The state has reached a critical point in this ongoing reform effort, and it must now work hard to address the challenges that remain and fulfill all of the requirements of the Brian A. settlement.”

The report notes several areas of continued improvement at DCS, including:

  • Placing foster children with families and not in institutions. For the third consecutive year, the vast majority — 90 percent — of children entering foster care are being placed in homes with families rather than in institutions or group homes. The percentage of children placed in group facilities has been reduced by half since the Brian A. case was settled.
  • Keeping kids out of emergency shelters. The percentage of children initially placed in emergency shelters or other temporary placements has decreased from nine percent to two percent over the past seven years.
  • Keeping sibling groups together in foster care. Eighty-five percent of children who entered DCS custody with their siblings remained with them in their foster care placements, a substantially higher rate than in many other states.
  • Better training for case workers. The report notes that one of the agency’s most significant improvements has been the expansion and enhancement of training for all workers.
  • Finding more permanent homes for children. DCS finalized 1,225 adoptions during FY 2006-2007 (the most recent data available) — up from just 431 adoptions finalized during FY 1999-2000, when the Brian A. case was filed. Additionally, DCS has added subsidized permanent guardianship as a permanency option for children and eliminated “long-term foster care” as a goal assigned to children in state custody, which in the past contributed to many children spending their entire childhood in state custody.
  • Maintaining lower caseloads for case workers. The report found that 90 percent of workers and supervisors are within the caseload limits set forth in the settlement.

However, the committee also notes in its report areas in need of improvement, including:

  • Quality of DCS case practice. In a recent review of DCS casework — the day-to-day interactions betweenDCS workers, children, families, and the community that ensure children are safe and thriving in foster care — fewer than 40 percent of cases evaluated scored “acceptable” in any of the core performance areas, including engagement of children and families, assessing children’s needs, planning for children and implementing goals for children in custody.
  • Foster parent recruitment and retention. The report cites a steady decline in the number of available foster homes over the past 18 months. DCS currently lacks the type and number of foster homes needed to serve the children coming into care from each region of the state. This shortage increases the likelihood that children will be placed in homes that fail to meet their needs — and that children will be shuffled between too many homes and forced to live outside their home communities.
  • Maintaining critical family ties. The report found that DCS ensured monthly visits between parents and children in only 39 percent of cases involving children assigned the goal of reunification with their biological families. The Brian A. settlement requires that at least 80 percent of these children visit with their parents at least once per month. Failing to maintain these family ties is both traumatic for children and reduces their chances of safely and permanently returning home.

Filed in 2000 on behalf of all foster children in state custody (currently around 7,000 children), the Brian A. class action charged that Tennessee’s mismanaged child welfare system violated children’s federal civil rights and caused them irreparable physical and emotional harm and continued risk of harm. A settlement agreement was reached with state officials in 2001 mandating systemwide reform, but initially yielded few results, prompting Children’s Rights to file a contempt motion against the state in 2003. A new agreement was reached and new DCS leadership was put in place, along with a requirement for DCS to work with a technical assistance committee composed of national child welfare experts to meet all of the requirements of the court-ordered reform plan.

Today’s report — and a complete archive of documents related to the Brian A. reform class action — can be found at www.childrensrights.org.

Media Contacts:
Chris Iseli or Brooks Halliday // 212.683.2210