Years of system-wide reform results in massive turnaround for Tennessee’s child welfare system

Sixteen years later, Tennessee Department of Children’s Services is free of federal court oversight and now has a thoroughly reformed foster care system, after meeting nearly 140 benchmarks set out by the Brian A. settlement.

Following years pursuing system-wide reforms, Gov. Bill Haslam announced on July 18 the Department of Children’s Services for Tennessee is free of federal court oversight. The federal judge’s decision came after the department met and maintained a broad series of benchmarks to improve its foster care system.

“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,” said Haslam.

U.S. District Court Judge Waverly D. Crenshaw’s ruling marks a new beginning for a department that was plagued by inefficiencies at the turn of the millennium.

In 2000, the Department of Children’s Services (DCS) for Tennessee was sued by Children’s Rights. The children’s advocacy group filed a federal class action suit, stating ‘the system was overburdened.’ At the time, the New York-based group was in litigation or negotiating settlements in 13 other states or jurisdictions.

A brief look at the plight of children “in the system” reveals the lawsuit was well-grounded.

Too many languished. Once in custody, they would often dwell in congregate care for seven to eight months. Some would go home. Others would be adopted. Many would bounce between foster care homes and orphanages. There was a harmful lack of permanency for the latter. Caseworkers, meanwhile, labored under an ever-growing caseload.

Suit namesake Brian A. was the first plaintiff. A nine-year-old, he had been in foster care in Memphis four years. The last seven months were spent at an emergency shelter. Twelve other plaintiffs joined later.

“They said the kids were in congregate care centers for too long and case workers had overwhelming caseloads,” said Rob Johnson, DCS Communications Director.

To repair the dysfunctional department, nearly 140 benchmarks were set by the court. Times to reunification or adoption, re-entry into the foster care, length of time in placement, parent-and-child visits and case-manager caseloads were among the failings that needed to be addressed.

Once met, they needed to be maintained for a year.

Glenn Butler, 20, works with his Life Set counselor to prepare for the online test for his driver's license.

“When I first saw the settlement agreement in 2001, I thought there is no way any state can come that far. I’ve never seen standards set that high,” said Pat Lawler, CEO of Youth Villages.

A nonprofit provider for child welfare services, Lawler’s organization had long advocated for change. For years, they witnessed the effects long stints in the system had on children. In 1993, they developed a plan to work with young people in their communities. The goal was to keep families together.

“We were well-positioned as an organization when the lawsuit happened because we already had services all across Tennessee. We had community-based services in place working with families, our Intercept program,” said Lawler. “We had therapy programs to work with children who had to be removed from their families. We had group homes for children who needed higher-level services. And we had residential treatment facilities here in Memphis and Middle Tennessee. So, when the state shifted, we were well prepared.”

Another shortcoming occurred when wards and children in foster care aged out. Many enter the system when they are 11 or 12. At 18, they are considered adults.

“Some kids turn 18 and still don’t have an adoptive home. They still don’t have a place to go,” said Johnson.

Now, counselors meet with a teen around age 17. Together, they tailor a plan for them to lead independent, successful lives. Continuing education, housing, finances, transportation and healthcare typically provide the framework.

“They are out on their own with no place to go, no stable family relationship, without a job, sometimes unfinished school. They are not prepared to live independently. So, we developed a program called YVLifeSet, which helps the transition in becoming a successful adult and independently responsible,” said Lawler.

The program is there to fill gaps that may hinder the transition to independence. If a child is aging out of the system, YVLifeSet counselors work with the youth to find solutions to adulthood’s hurdles.

“The program is there to help these young adults deal with whatever crisis is in their YVLifeSet – to be there as a support for them,” said Johnson.

Counselors caseloads total eight to nine youths. Timeframes are based on the needs. Some kids require six months. Others need a year, or longer. 

“It’s a wonderful program. It’s the model we are trying to replicate throughout the country with other providers,” said Lawler.

Youth Villages is one of the largest providers enlisted. Based on their YVLifeSet program, Tennessee is one of the first states to offer independent living services for every child who ages out of their foster care system.

Siblings with experience in the program are Glenn and Gerry Butler.

The youngest of eight children, their mother passed away in 2012. They moved in with an older sister, but it was temporary.

“That’s when foster care came into place. We moved in with Ms. Tate,” said Glenn Butler, 20. “It’s been the only foster home we’ve been to.”

Although they moved to a new community, they stayed together. They enrolled in Houston High School. The pair had to learn how to connect with a different set of peers.

“The only thing I used to talk about was basketball. I could talk basketball 24-7. But now, I had to learn new ways to interact with other kids,” said Glenn.

The new environment provided challenges, but sometimes that’s what a person needs.

“At first, I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t know them. But now, it was good – to work on myself,” said Gerry Butler, 18.

With the help of foster mother Yolanda Tate and counselors, the brothers finished high school. Now, out of the foster care system they are taking part in the YVLifeSet program.

With a goal of attending U of M, Gerry started in the program a year before he graduated. He’s currently a student in the Tiger Life program, which is also designed to help young adults live independently. Once he graduates in December, he’s going to start earning college credits. It’s a plan he and his YVLifeSet counselor drew up.

“I want to be a social worker. But until I get to that point, I’m doing the basic stuff of life,” said Gerry.

Glenn, 20, has moved in with his sister. He is attending classes at Moore Tech, pursuing certification in their Air Conditioning, Refrigeration and Heating program. He’ll finish in February.

“I really want to be a veterinarian. So, I’m going into HVAC so I can make money while I go to school to become a veterinarian,” said Glenn.

Raven Driver, 19, is attending University of Memphis this fall, with help from the Life Set program.

Another teen transitioning out of the foster care system is Raven Driver. Her mother passed away when she was eight. A student at U of M, she had a good first semester with a GPA of 2.9. During the second term, her grades dropped around the anniversary of her mom’s death.

“It really threw me off course, among other things. I was so young and never really had the chance to mourn. But I’m back with the help of Miss Rebecca (YVLifeSet counselor) and my boyfriend – they’ve been there for me,” said Driver.

Recently, her counselor had helped her find temporary residence on campus for July. It prevented her from becoming homeless. The 19-year-old moved into a permanent place on Aug. 4. She’s looking forward to returning to school in the fall.

‘I’m very excited about starting anew. This year, I am hoping my GPA exceeds 3.0,” said Driver.

While Lawler’s organization was ready to hit the ground running, the state of Tennessee was a different matter.

After being pilloried in the Brian A. settlement with a litany of demands, a change at the top was practically mandated too.

In need of a fresh perspective, then-Gov. Phil Bredesen looked to neighboring Kentucky for help.

He hired Viola Miller as the new Commissioner of the Dept. of Children’s Services in 2003. Under her leadership, Kentucky’s Child Services department had been restructured. Several critical reforms were instituted. Many were geared towards accountability and client services. Along with Miller, came future DCS Commissioner Bonnie Hommrich.

A structure of accountability was soon put into place - another part of the settlement. The Technical Assistance Committee served as the court monitor. Comprised of public child welfare experts from around the country, it reported the department’s progress to the court. It also provided expertise in child welfare and used department data to conduct quality service reviews with DCS staff.

“They weren’t there to just slap the department on the wrist when it didn’t do what it needed to do. They also worked collaboratively with the department. They even had staff in the building,” said Johnson.

With their work cut out for them, the state began ticking off the exhaustive list. Simply put, the benchmarks prescribed the best practices for public child welfare.

A good example of ‘best practices’ is keeping kids close to home. Most in the system eventually go back to their families. It’s the best-case scenario, providing the environment is healthy and safe.

“You don’t want them to get too far from their homes, family and friends. If possible, you want them going to the same school as the one they were going to before,” said Johnson.

Consequently, a benchmark was set. It prescribed the percentage of children in custody within 75 miles from their home.

Another benchmark dealt with siblings and the percentage placed together in foster care, for instance. The fact that Glenn and Gerry Butler were placed together wasn’t an anomaly. The DCS tries to place siblings together, if possible.

“It can be scary to be pulled from your home. When you come into foster care, often times, your best advocate and buddy is your sibling. They just do so much better when they are with their sibs,” said Johnson.

An overhaul was needed for the department’s computer system too. The old network was essentially a patchwork of systems. Decentralized, they did not work together reliably.

The new TFACTS is a modern case-management system. It can handle a variety of functions, from case notes and management tools to billing.

“To do the training and to have a computer system robust enough to collect all of this data, you start to get an idea of how complicated this all is,” said Johnson. “It affects everything. It affects the practice model. It affects how we work with families.”

Another reform concept adopted by DCS is a child-and-family teaming model.

When a child enters foster care, they are assigned a family team. This includes case managers, care providers, birth parents and foster parents. Other family members are included, as well as any court-appointed representatives. They meet regularly with a facilitator.

“It’s an opportunity for the foster parent to say ‘I don’t know why she won’t eat breakfast’ and the birth parents can say ‘she prefers Frosted Flakes, not Cheerios,’” said Johnson. “Or the conversation could be ‘you know, Mom, as long as your boyfriend is a convicted sex offender, we’re not going to let that child go back into the home.’”

The team also helps parents address issues that led to their child being placed in the foster care system. A child does not return home until it is deemed safe. There are resources to help parents meet that standard. It could be through helping them obtain a driver’s license, find a job or seek counseling.

Families can express their needs during the meetings. They can also ask questions about a judge’s ruling, for example.

Performance-based contracting is being instituted, as well.

Under the old system, many private providers were paid by the number of children in their care. As with private prisons, it can create a monetary incentive to keep them in their care.

Private providers will now be paid based on outcomes, nullifying the incentive.

“This is just a flavor of what these benchmarks are and actually changed the way the department did its work,” said Johnson.

Tennessee spent hundreds of millions on reforms and tens of millions on legal fees as a result of the lawsuit, according to DCS.

After meeting the benchmarks, DCS received re-accreditation by the Council on Accreditation. Tennessee is one a handful of states to achieve the distinction.

What’s more impressive are the numbers. Before the lawsuit, over 11,000 children were in foster care. Since the reforms, the number has dropped to 7,300. DCS is also responsible for the approximately 1,100 youth in the state’s juvenile-justice population. They were not part of the Brian A. suit.

“It was a long journey. It represented hard work. It represented a lot of commitment. A lot of innovation,” said Johnson.

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Read more articles by Kim and Jim Coleman.

Kim Coleman is a journalist with over 20 years of experience in newsrooms as a reporter, editor and graphic designer, including ten years with The Commercial Appeal as Design Director/Senior Editor and Print Planning Editor. 


Jim Coleman is a freelance writer, covering a variety of topics from high school sports, community news and small business. He has written for different news organizations over the past 20 years, including The Commercial Appeal, Community Weeklies, Lexington Herald-Leader and The Albuquerque Journal.