Judge reviews latest analysis on state's foster system.
While the Department of Children's Services has made progress in how it cares for Tennessee foster children, the agency failed to meet court-ordered standards in key areas last year, according to a report filed in federal court this week by independent monitors.
Some department workers still juggle too many children's cases at one time; not all child records are updated in a timely manner; and the agency isn't properly overseeing its use of isolation or physical restraints for children in residential or institutional placements, the court-appointed monitors noted.
Lawyers for DCS return to federal court today for a judge's review of the latest analysis of Tennessee's foster system, filed as part of an ongoing lawsuit against DCS by children's advocates. Its findings were not unexpected, according to Commissioner Jim Henry.
"There were no surprises here," Henry said. "Last year was a very challenging year for the department, and these developments reflect that. But we have a new team in place at DCS — and a renewed vigor for continuing the ongoing improvements that we have achieved on behalf of Tennessee's foster children."
DCS has been under federal court oversight since 2000, when child advocates filed suit over mistreatment of foster children in the system. The lawsuit, named Brian A. after a 9-year-old boy left to live in a Shelby County emergency shelter for nine months, required ongoing oversight by independent monitors.
The agency currently has 7,281 foster children. It had made steady progress until 2012, when outside monitors discovered alarming lapses in DCS oversight of foster children. At the same time, lawmakers, child advocates and law enforcement officials were criticizing DCS investigations into child abuse. The agency also repeatedly released incorrect numbers of children who died under the agency's care. Henry was appointed to take over the agency in February 2013, after the mounting controversies prompted former Commissioner Kate O'Day to resign.
Henry has ordered a series of reforms at the agency since, hiring outside staff, restructuring how child deaths are accounted for and fixing the agency's massive computer tracking system.
The agency is doing better in two respects, the report found. It is sticking to a policy requiring trial home visits before children are reunited with families they have been taken from. They are also ensuring no conflicts of interest exist between leaders of agencies that contract with the state, the report also noted.
"We are encouraged by the new leadership and its firm commitment to greater transparency, owning the remaining serious problems at DCS and putting the resources to bear to fix them," said Ira Lustbader, associate director of New York City-based Children's Rights, which originally filed suit against DCS. "These kids are among the most vulnerable imaginable and depend on DCS for literally everything in their lives, so that's what's at stake in this legal reform campaign."