Tennessee’s Department of Children's Services Making StridesFor the last 15 years, the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services, or DCS, has been subjected to federal oversight. It all started with a case in 2000 involving a “9-year-old boy who spent seven months in an overcrowded Memphis emergency shelter with dangerous older boys and little access to education,” as described by The Tennessean. The advocacy group Children’s Rights, based out of New York, filed a suit against DCS in 2001. They asked for the court to intervene again in 2003, which led to the creation of the Technical Assistance Committee (TAC) by, a “court-appointed panel of five national child welfare experts… charged with advising on the implementation of the settlement agreement and monitoring DCS performance.”

Since then, the state has implemented some massive changes in our foster system, meeting more than 140 benchmarks set forth by the court. U.S. District Judge Todd Campbell “formally approved an agreement between the state and Children’s Rights that the case will come to a closure when the state can maintain its efforts for a full year. They also agreed that when the case is closed, an independent monitoring group would review DCS and make those reviews public for an additional 18 months.”

I personally know many DCS caseworkers who work with a heavy caseload, and in many cases under difficult circumstances, and yet they protect children who have been abused or neglected by getting these children into safe homes. So often, these workers are unsung heroes who tirelessly work to protect children. Our track record for protecting children was dreadful for years, and we still have a ways to go, but overall this is good news for DCS. ChildrensRights.org claims that DCS has “dramatically reduced its historical over-reliance on non-family institutional placements” and “lowered caseloads considerably,” and has “fixed numerous problems in its child welfare information system.” All of this from a department that, when the original suit was filed, could not give an accurate number of children who had died while in its care.

Better, but not perfect

Our Department of Child Services still has work to do. 2014 saw the deaths or near-deaths of 123 children in DCS’s custody. This is better than the 149 cases that went to review in 2012, but it’s still too high, as the department reviews deaths and near deaths of:

  • “Any child in state custody who dies or experiences near death for any reason;
  • Any child who has had contact with DCS within the three (3) years preceding their death or near death and their death or near death is being investigated for an allegation of abuse or neglect;
  • Any child whose death or near death has been indicated (substantiated) for abuse or neglect regardless of previous contact with DCS;
  • Any child death or near death at the direction of the Commissioner, on the advice of the Medical Director or Deputy Commissioner Office of Child Safety.”

The signs that DCS is getting better are there, and I am grateful for them. Tennessee’s foster system is supposed to protect children, not harm them, and it appears that the Department of Children’s Services is making great strides. I genuinely hope they continue in this vein. I work with parents who foster children and want to adopt, so I know – truly – how badly we need these reforms. Sometimes there are situations where I disagree with the actions of DCS, and I advocate on behalf of parents whose children were removed from their care. However, even then it does not negate the fact that the overarching goal of DCS is to protect children. If DCS continues to improve, with or without oversight, then it will all be worth it.

My name is Kevin Shepherd, and I am a family law attorney in Maryville. It’s my job to help you and your family plan the future you deserve. If you are interested in expanding your family through adoption, or would like legal advice in regards to fostering a child, please contact my law firm, Shepherd and Associates, P.C. by filling out this contact form or by calling 865.225.9655.

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