By Tony Gonzalez | The Tennessean
Tennessee's Department of Children's Services has been trying to improve the care of children in state custody since a lawsuit filed in 2000 triggered numerous court-ordered changes. But more than a decade later, some of the mandates still have not been met.
Until the department meets every requirement of the federal lawsuit settlement, an independent team of child-welfare experts will continue to watch and evaluate DCS staff.
In late 2010, DCS had met so many goals that officials and the experts said the department might soon be released from the court-ordered monitoring. A 2011 report even praised some of Tennessee's efforts as worth duplicating elsewhere.
But something went wrong and the momentum the state had gained on meeting the federal standards started slowing down, inching to a crawl and leaving department leaders unable to say when outside monitoring will end.
"The pace of reform has slowed, certainly in the last 18 months," said attorney Ira Lustbader of New York-based Children's Rights, the advocacy organization that brought the lawsuit against the state in 2000. "We have to see, certainly, a redoubling of efforts here. We need to see them truly and transparently getting in front of these problems."
Two years after the department prepared an exit plan, the outside monitoring continues. Costs continue to grow. And recent criticisms from independent reviewers and officials outside DCS have drawn attention to areas the department has yet to fix.
In the past month, a Tennessee lawmaker has criticized the department for failing to produce data about child deaths -- something the law requires. And officials in one county alleged DCS workers were mishandling cases of severe child abuse. In response, Gov. Bill Haslam reviewed case files from this year that document the deaths of 31 children who have, at one point, been subject to a department investigation. He concluded the department acted appropriately.
While the department says it is addressing those concerns, work continues on an updated review of how DCS is meeting court-ordered requirements. A new federal filing, due this month, will take stock of which objectives are being met.
The 2000 lawsuit focuses specifically on how DCS cares for children in state custody. That's only part of the department's responsibilities. The department also investigates reports of child abuse and neglect across the state.
The lawsuit is known as "Brian A," for a 9-year-old boy who had been living for seven months in an overcrowded Shelby County emergency shelter. A federal judge found that Tennessee failed to properly care for kids in state custody and foster care.
"Tennessee had one of the most dangerous systems we had ever come across," Lustbader said.
The judge demanded that the state reduce the time kids remain in custody and stop "warehousing" kids in group facilities. When possible, children are supposed to be cared for close to their hometowns.
Social workers were burdened by too many cases, and the state system was not being held accountable, Lustbader said. The settlement aimed to speed the response times of investigators in abuse cases, improve training, recruit more foster parents, and create a new statewide computer system to keep track of everything and assist with decision making.
Tennessee also changed how it does business with private companies that run child facilities, adding annual reviews. Companies that improve are paid bonuses. Underperformers pay penalties back to the state.
'Cost to the state'
When federal oversight first began state officials were slow to make required changes, prompting another court action in 2003. In response, the state hired a new commissioner, Viola P. Miller, to turn around the effort. By 2010, the department had come far enough to write an exit plan.
The plan, "was something (Miller) had very much earned, in bringing the ball far down the field," Lustbader said. "They were on a pretty sharp trajectory to get there."
Miller left at the end of 2010 when Haslam named Kate O'Day commissioner of DCS.
By then, Tennessee had come a long way from being one of the worst child welfare systems in the nation, according to the monitors' measurements.
Specifically, the monitors and Children's Rights praised the state for closing many group homes and for placing children with permanent families at a higher rate and more quickly.
Staffing levels and training improved. Caseloads for social workers had come down by half.
But to exit from oversight, the department needed to meet more goals and then maintain that performance for 12 straight months.
To reach that point would allow "the governor and the commissioner of children's services to chart their own destinies," said Doug Dimond, general counsel for DCS.
That hasn't happened.
The state continues to pay to be monitored. Since the federal rules began, DCS has budgeted $190,000 each year to pay for monitoring, plus $250,000 each year in salary and benefits for five staff members who work with the monitors.
The department doesn't always spend the full amount budgeted.
The state has paid an additional $3.8 million in plaintiff attorneys' fees and costs since 2004, according to federal court filings.
In an interview last week with The Tennessean editorial board, Haslam said he asks department leaders each month whether outside monitoring will end.
"Every month that gets pushed out is a cost to the state," he said.
Computer slows progress
Instead of exiting from oversight, the agency has become the subject of newly critical reports and scrutiny.
In particular, the agency's new computer software, the Tennessee Family and Child Tracking System, or "TFACTS," was faulted when it stopped making payments to some foster parents and was unable to provide data on children the state works with.
TFACTS problems don't end there.
DCS officials, the court monitors, and Lustbader all blamed the computer system for hampering the department's progress toward completing Brian A. settlement requirements.
"The overarching issue is TFACTS," said Bonnie Hommrich, a DCS deputy commissioner who came to the department with Miller in 2003. "None of us have the level of comfort that we did prior to TFACTS with the data system. That doesn't mean we're not making enormous strides."
TFACTS, launched in September 2010, should track every child who is in custody or who is the subject of a report or investigation. Allegations of abuse or neglect, child deaths and health issues are recorded in the system.
The computer system should also make possible analysis of social worker caseloads and investigation response times, but the system has not been able to create such reports -- just one of numerous deficiencies as documented in a Tennessee Comptroller report, an internal department audit and the most recent report by the independent monitors, who are referred to as the Technical Assistance Committee (TAC).
"We're making progress," O'Day said last week. "TFACTS has slowed us down."
While officials emphasize TFACTS delays, the June TAC monitoring report documents other reforms yet to meet court-mandated standards.
The department's "major challenge" is improving the casework that DCS staff members carry out each day to ensure safety, health and success for kids, the report states. Those day-to-day interactions with children, families, law enforcement and health professionals must be improved if the department wants to provide good care, monitors said.
In response, the department created new ways to evaluate employees and supervisors and a new approach to training that "should result in broad and deep improvement in front-line practice," the report states.
The latest training began in July. The department hired new instructors and will teach staff members "in-house," Hommrich said. She explained that the new approach brings in trainers with more real-world experience, as opposed to the university-based instructors from before. The curriculum remains the same.
Lustbader, the Children's Rights attorney, said he is looking to the department for an intensive review of the work being done by caseworkers.
He's concerned by DCS data showing the deaths this year of 31 children who had contact with the department.
But, he cautioned, "you certainly want to avoid that kind of reflexive, hysterical-type reaction. You don't want to swing the pendulum dramatically in one way or the other."
Problems could be isolated in a particular region, or could stem from leadership, funding or policies.
"We need to get underneath, to what degree are these systemic? Are they regional? Is this a resource issue or a training issue? We need to get underneath that before major shifts in policy are made," Lustbader said.
The department has never met its goal of increasing visits between kids in custody and their parents and siblings.
It is possible that TFACTS has not properly recorded visits that are happening, Hommrich said. A separate review of files, requested by the monitors, indicated more visits are taking place.
"A lot of the families have very challenging, stressful lives, so trying to show up every two weeks on a set time and a set place, sometimes that makes it difficult on the parents to meet that," Hommrich said.
At the same time, the state is struggling to recruit enough foster families to care for the more than 8,000 children in state custody -- as many as in 2006. More foster families have been found recently, but the state is still seeking more families and homes that can keep children.
The department doesn't know exactly why the number of children in custody has risen, but officials pointed to at least two reasons: poor economic times and an increase in drug abuse by pregnant mothers who send sick infants -- and often siblings -- into custody. A study of the causes is under way by child welfare experts at Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago.
The department also has been looking at what community-level resources are available to help parents before the state has to intervene.
"Whenever possible, it's better to keep children in their home with parents and try to address problems there," department spokesman Brandon Gee said. "If it's something below the level of imminent danger but still there's some parenting skills that need to be improved, there's a real push here to try to deal with that instead of taking custody."
Lustbader said the current administration, led by O'Day, needs to regain the momentum DCS inherited after the leadership change in 2011.
"Management and leadership are critical to fully realizing all the improvements that were promised to these kids," Lustbader said. "I think the commissioner and her team have an opportunity to step in front of the problems they are facing."
Reach Tony Gonzalez at 615-259-8089 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tgonzalez.