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Tennessee’s Department of Children’s Services (DCS) Nears Exit from Federal Court Oversight

‘We are so proud of Tennessee, not only for doing right by the children in its care, but also for demonstrating that top-to-bottom, systemic reform is absolutely possible,’ says Children’s Rights

(Nashville, TN)—Court appointed monitors in the lawsuit known as the Brian A case today report that Tennessee’s Department of Children’s Services (DCS)—once beset with dangerous systemic problems such as high caseloads and a propensity to place children in orphanage-like settings and emergency shelters—has sustained their performance on more than 140 mandated benchmarks to overhaul its foster care system. This report is now under review and negotiation by Children’s Rights and Tennessee state officials to determine if it supports a joint request to successfully end court oversight, a massive milestone that has been 16 years in the making.

“We are so proud of Tennessee, not only for doing right by the children in its care, but also for demonstrating that top-to-bottom, systemic reform is absolutely possible,” says Ira Lustbader, litigation director for Children’s Rights. “As we head toward a final stage of this federal reform lawsuit, the need for continuous improvement cannot stop, and what’s hopeful for the future of Tennessee’s children is that the DCS leadership understands and embraces that.”

Since 2000, when Children’s Rights and Tennessee co-counsel filed the class action known as Brian A. v. Haslam, the state has made remarkable strides to protect and help the children in its care:

•85% of children entering the system are now being placed in family settings
•99% of children are appropriately housed in placements that can meet their needs and virtually 100% of all children under age 6 are in family homes
•95% of caseworkers are maintaining dramatically lower caseload numbers within the limits set by the Settlement Agreement
•97% of children, who are on a track towards reunifying with their parents, are now visiting with their parents at least once per month and approximately 80% are visiting at least twice per month

A hearing to consider the status of continued federal oversight over this reform effort is scheduled for late May 2017. If the Court grants exit and dismissal of these improvement benchmarks, the lawsuit will enter a final phase where an external accountability center, funded by DCS, will continue to issue public report cards on the state’s progress in key areas for 18 months.

Children’s Rights and Tennessee co-counsel filed Brian A. v. Haslam on behalf of all foster children in state custody. The class action charged Tennessee’s mismanaged child welfare system with violating children’s constitutional rights and subjecting children to physical and emotional harm and ongoing risks of such harm. The original settlement was reached in 2001, but has been modified and streamlined several times since then. Co-counsel includes David Raybin of Hollins, Raybin & Weissman and Jacqueline Dixon of Weatherly, McNally & Dixon in Nashville; Wade Davies of Ritchie, Fels & Dillard in Knoxville; and Robert Louis Hutton of Glankler Brown in Memphis.