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Tennessee's child welfare system rebounded under new leadership in the past year — although challenges remain — experts say in a new 505-page report.

New top leaders at the Tennessee Department of Children's Services get credit for putting the state's foster care system "back on track." The praise appears in the annual report by a team of monitors put together under a federal court order.

Since a lawsuit in 2000, the state agency has had to reform how it protects vulnerable children — changes that ground almost to a halt in 2011 and 2012 before the improvements detailed in the new paper.

The court monitors work closely with DCS staff to prepare deep reports like the new one. These experts now say that DCS made improvements, including:

• fixing problems with the agency's huge computer system that had hindered caseworkers;

• creating a new method of counting and examining child deaths;

• recruiting more foster families; and,

• investing in ways to help foster children who age out of the system.

"We certainly haven't reached the finish line yet," said Ira Lustbader, associate director of Children's Rights, the New York-based advocacy group that first sued the state along with a team of Tennessee attorneys. "The state still has major work to do in order to fulfill the court-ordered promises it made to its children."

The report, put together by the experts formally known as the Technical Assistance Committee, found ongoing struggles for DCS caseworkers in how they investigate families and how much attention they give to children in foster care.

Only 60 percent of children had "adequate" assessments of their needs — a process that matches kids with foster homes. Just more than half of children in foster care saw their caseworkers six times in the first two months of their time in custody — a requirement.

And in cases in which DCS plans to reunite abused children with their families, only 55 percent of children visited their families in the month of December, far short of a court-ordered goal.

DCS spokesman Rob Johnson said the department was pleased with the recognition of recent achievements.

"We have generated a lot of momentum at DCS in the last 12 months, and we will use that energy to continue to improve outcomes for our children," he wrote in an emailed statement.

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