A high-powered group of Tennessee commissioners, judges and lawmakers agreed Thursday to work together in the next year on a series of projects to better protect children and improve the juvenile justice system.
The panel, known as the Three Branches Institute because leaders from across government participate, used the past year to set common goals and create a wish list of improvements.
In the next year they hope to break down how the Department of Children's Services investigates abuse, create uniformity across juvenile courts, collect more useful data about children in foster care and develop alternatives to juvenile incarceration.
The panelists emphasized that DCS isn't solely responsible for protecting children, and that judges, health agencies and lawmakers must communicate better to make them safer.
"We need to understand that we can't do this by ourselves," said DCS Commissioner Jim Henry. "We're trying to make this so that we're going to be able to set the bar for the nation. As you know, there are lots of obstacles."
Although not alone in the effort, DCS led Thursday's meeting with a series of updates about the child protection system and foster care.
Henry and his top staffers described efforts to change the culture at DCS, including giving investigators who work with families better training, and setting up child death reviews that encourage honest discussions — without employees fearing punishment for discussing what may have gone wrong.
The panel also set goals for lawmakers. In the coming year, they'll ask legislators to consider increasing funding for child welfare, in addition to making families a priority both at the Capitol and in their home districts.
Lawmakers also will re-examine the state laws that define how DCS files reports and data, so that their reporting can become more transparent and useful.
Juvenile court judges will be tapped to identify which services for children and families may be lacking in their communities.
They also will work to make juvenile courts more consistent across Tennessee to "increase the likelihood that children, youth and families will receive the same responses from the court regardless of where one lives," the panel's work plan states.
Judge Nolan Goolsby, a juvenile and general sessions judge in Putnam County, is leading the group's effort to improve how juvenile courts collect data on child custody cases, which he said has been lacking for years.
"We'll collaborate together with each branch to have responsibilities and to try to work together for the safety of our youth," Goolsby said.