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Tennessee Case Study: Report Shares Lessons Learned from Child Welfare System Overhaul

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Contact: Daniel Kessel, 646-216-3343, dkessel@childrensrights.org

(Nashville, TN) – Tracing the dramatic overhaul of Tennessee’s Department of Children’s Services over the past two decades, a new report details the trajectory of challenges and eventual success in DCS’s efforts to comprehensively transform the state’s child welfare system as part of the Brian A. v. Haslam reform campaign brought by Children’s Rights.

The report, “Lessons Learned from Child Welfare Class Action Litigation: A Case Study of Tennessee’s Reform,” was issued by The Center for the Study of Social Policy (CSSP) and highlights ways in which key stakeholders worked together to improve the state’s services for children and families. The report is intended to share best practices and help child welfare system leaders, policymakers, and advocates across the country learn from Tennessee’s experience and success.

Children’s Rights and Tennessee co-counsel filed Brian A. v. Haslam in May 2000 on behalf of all foster children in state custody, responding to grave concerns about the safety and well-being of children in Tennessee foster care. In July 2017, Chief U.S. District Judge Waverly D. Crenshaw, Jr., determined that DCS had sustained performance on more than 140 mandated benchmarks for reform. In this landmark ruling, the state was granted exit from these court-ordered improvements, setting the stage for a final-end oversight in Brian A. v. Haslam in early 2019.

Beginning with an overview of the history of this reform effort, the report concludes with key lessons learned in the system overhaul:

  • The importance of effective leadership for success: Though DCS was led by seven different commissioners during the reform, each leader brought a unique skill set at a particular stage of the reform that helped advance the work. Effective leadership is essential to the success of any major child welfare reform effort.
  • Front-line staff and resources to sustain the work, including quality assurance and data systems: Ultimately, success in Tennessee depended on the ability of front line case managers to engage effectively with children and families. To implement change, proper resources needed to be provided to the system and strong data systems—lacking before reform—needed to be put in place.
  • Critical role of lawyers in promoting and sustaining the reform: The report emphasizes that Tennessee children in foster care are in a demonstrably better situation than when the Brian A. lawsuit began, and many DCS commissioners agreed that it is unlikely the reform would have succeeded in the absence of litigation.

“Strategic litigation can help spark and sustain system reform for kids and families, and we are proud at Children’s Rights to have been a part of real durable change in Tennessee’s child welfare system,” said Ira Lustbader, litigation director at Children’s Rights. “No state’s system is perfect, but Tennessee has come a long way toward better serving children and their families. We hope these takeaways can help more states make necessary reforms.”

“States in every region of the nation are hard at work trying to achieve better outcomes for children, youth and families served by their child welfare systems,” said Judith Meltzer, Executive Vice President of CSSP. “Tennessee’s experience in the context of class action litigation offers valuable lessons for other state and local improvement efforts. This case study attempts to capture some of the most important lessons from those who were doing the work in Tennessee.”

For more information about Brian A. v. Haslam, please visit childrensrights.org/Tennessee. To learn more about the DCF’s specific reforms between 2000 and 2017, see the Brian A. v. Haslam Fact Sheet.

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Every day, children are harmed in America’s broken child welfare, juvenile justice, education, and healthcare systems. Through relentless strategic advocacy and legal action, we hold governments accountable for keeping kids safe and healthy. Children’s Rights, a national non-profit organization, has made a lasting impact for hundreds of thousands of vulnerable children. For more information, please visit www.childrensrights.org.

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