New Report: Tennessee Maintains Vital Improvements for Kids in Foster Care, but Significant Challenges Remain

NASHVILLE – While Tennessee has successfully maintained improvements in a number of key areas for thousands of abused and neglected children statewide — including continued reductions in the number of children in foster care forced to live in institutions — the state must now focus on improving the quality of its work on each child’s case, according to a new progress report on the ongoing reform effort spurred by Children’s Rights to improve the state child welfare system.

According to today’s report (PDF), the vast majority of children in Tennessee foster care are no longer warehoused in institutions and group homes, but rather placed in safe homes with families well-equipped to care for them. Additionally, children are placed much closer to their families while in foster care and the state’s caseworkers are better trained and no longer overwhelmed by enormous caseloads.

However, the report also notes a number of areas where the state’s Department of Children’s Services (DCS) must make significant improvements, including better support for teens in foster care so they are better prepared for adulthood when they leave the system, ensuring more participation from families in planning for children’s safe and permanent exit from state custody, and greatly increasing opportunities for children in foster care to visit with their birth parents and their brothers and sisters.

“The previous administration made significant progress in improving Tennessee’s care and treatment of its abused and neglect kids,” said Ira Lustbader, associate director of Children’s Rights. “We’ve met with Governor Haslam andDCS Commissioner O’Day and we’re encouraged by their commitment to maintain these improvements and address the remaining problems at DCS that they are now accountable for under the court-ordered reform plan.”

Because of the sustained improvements of the last several years, DCS and Children’s Rights jointly filed an exit plan in November 2010 specifically outlining the legal obligations and requirements the state must meet to successfully end federal court oversight. If the state makes all of the improvements specified by the new plan and then maintains that progress for at least 12 months, the state can petition the court to end the lawsuit.

Today’s report, which was issued by a committee of independent child welfare experts appointed by the federal judge overseeing the class action, outlines the state’s efforts throughout 2010. However, due to delays in the state’s implementation of a new computer data system called Tennessee Family and Child Tracking System (TFACTS), the independent monitors could not provide information on the state’s performance in many of the required areas through the end of 2010 — including the state’s progress in reducing the number of different placements children experience while in foster care and increasing the timeliness of children’s safe reunification with their birth families.

Today’s report is the eighth issued by the court-appointed monitors, and highlights a number of sustained improvements made by DCS:

  • Continued reduction in the state’s reliance on group homes and institutions for children in foster care.Over 92 percent of children entering Tennessee foster care are placed with families — a significant decline from 2001 when about 22 percent of all children in foster care were placed in group homes and institutions.
  • Keeping children close to their home communities while in foster care. Through April 2010, 89 percent of children in state custody were placed within 75 miles of their homes.
  • Placing brothers and sisters together in foster care. For the state fiscal year 2010, approximately 84 percent of siblings were placed together in the same foster home when they first came into care.
  • Increased training and support to the child welfare workforce. DCS has increased pay and enhanced training for DCS case managers and has significantly reduced caseloads. Approximately 96 percent of the workforce now carries caseloads within the caseload requirements outlined by the settlement agreement.

In addition to maintaining its strong performance on these measures, according to the report, DCS must make additional improvements in several key areas:

  • Increase visits between children in foster care and their birth parents and brothers and sisters. Less than 30 percent of children are visiting with their parents at least twice a month, and only an additional 30 percent meeting with their parents monthly. Furthermore, less than half of children in foster care who were separated from their siblings get an opportunity to visit with their brothers and sisters at least once a month.
  • DCS must improve services and supports for teens before they leave the foster care system (usually when they reach 18 or 21). These children need services that will allow them to live independently when they leave or “age out” of state custody, as well as connections to stable housing, educational opportunities, and other vital services aimed at strengthening their independent-living skills.
  • Improve the quality of its work on each individual case and the quality of caseworker supervision. DCShas implemented initiatives to help enhance case practice, including child and family team meetings to develop short- and long-term plans to strengthen the family and keep kids safe. However, its new policies and practices have not yet been fully implemented. For example, today’s report shows that less than half of all foster parents are attending these child and family team meetings.

Filed in 2000 by Children’s Rights and co-counsel on behalf of all children in state custody (currently 6,000 children), 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 a team of Tennessee attorneys including David Raybin of Hollins, Raybin & Weissman and Jacqueline Dixon of Weatherly, McNally & Dixon in Nashville; Richard Fields in Memphis; Robert Louis Hutton of Glankler Brown in Memphis; and Wade Davies of Ritchie, Fels & Dillard in Knoxville.

Children’s Rights and state officials negotiated a settlement agreement in 2001 mandating systemwide reform, but it 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 experts to meet the requirements of the 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/tennessee.