Tennessee DCS free of federal court oversight thanks to 16 years of reform

MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - After more than 16 years of reform, Tennessee Department of Children's Services (DCS) is free of federal court oversight.

Gov. Bill Haslam and DCS Commissioner Bonnie Hommrich said the state and Children's Rights, the New York-based advocacy group that sued Tennessee in 2000, agreed that Tennessee's reformed foster care system has improved.

Known as the Brian A. lawsuit, the agreement laid out for the settlement mandated changes within the Tennessee child welfare system in aspects ranging from training of caseworkers, medical care, proximity the child is placed away from their home, and medical care.

The lawsuit got its name from a 9-year-old boy named Brian who was placed in an overcrowded emergency shelter in Memphis. The lawsuit says Brian was housed with older boys who were accused of more severe crimes than him such as sexual assaults and violent crimes. It also alleged the child went without basic treatment services such as seeing a caseworker frequently, proper and appropriate schooling and education situations, and it was all the result of lack of placement options for the child.

Eight plaintiffs, including Brian, were named in the lawsuit when it was originally filed.

In 2015, the state agreed to a modified settlement agreement and exit plan for the state to come out from under federal oversight. You can read the entire 2015 settlement agreement and exit plan below.

"This is monumental for Tennessee's children and the state. After years of intervention, the federal government is saying that Tennessee is providing service to children in a way that models what it should look like for the rest of the country," Haslam said.

"This stage in our journey represents the hard work, commitment, and innovation it has taken to get here. So on behalf of our children, families, staff, and partners, I can say that we're just thrilled and thankful," Hommrich said. "But the work goes on. We will always have tough problems before us. At DCS, we promise to bring our full energy and attention to whatever lies ahead, and we will use the same focus and dedication that has brought us to this point today."

DCS achieved several performance benchmarks in 2015. Because the department maintained those benchmarks through 2016, the federal court agreed to lift the long-standing federal oversight.

Highlights of the department's reform include:

  • Among the nearly 140 foster-care benchmarks DCS achieved are measures of time to reunification, time to adoption, re-entry into the foster-care system, length of time in placement, parent-and-child visits, and case-manager caseloads.
  • DCS emphasizes family-style placement for youth in foster care, in place of institutional settings such as orphanages.
  • DCS has become a national leader in timeliness to adoption and in implementing a child-and-family teaming model that encourages birth parents, case managers, care providers, and foster families to work together on behalf of a child.
  • DCS has developed a process that has put the department on a path to a more professional workforce, with bachelor’s and master’s degree programs for case managers and supervisors.
  • DCS has built a robust, modern case-management computer system, TFACTS, that handles everything from case notes, management tools to billing days. It replaced a patchwork of computer systems that did not always work together reliably.
  • Although not a Brian A. requirement, DCS has achieved re-accreditation by the Council on Accreditation. Tennessee is one of the few states in the nation accomplish this.
  • Tennessee is the first state in the U.S. to offer independent living services to 100 percent of the youth who age out of foster care. This program is an outgrowth of pioneering work with private provider Youth Villages.

Today there are approximately 7,300 children in Tennessee foster care.

You can read the last TAC monitoring report on the department below:

You can also read the Notice of Compliance and Proposed Order to end oversight by clicking here.

To see all the legal documents related to this lawsuit and the documentation submitted over the course of the years on the progress DCS has made, click here.

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