Last week, the Tennessee Department of Children's Services (DCS) received a progress report on the status of its foster-care system and the 10,000 children in its care. The report, released without much fanfare, was not encouraging.
The report found DCS in full compliance with only 24 of 136 provisions and in total noncompliance on 84 of the requirements.
Sheila Agniel is the independent court-appointed monitor assigned to evaluate DCS reforms (per the May 2001 Children's Rights reform lawsuit Brian A. v. Sundquist). The report is the first of three findings regarding the agency's efforts to implement mandated changes. The report was based on a review of more than 1,000 children in state custody, with monitoring activities completed in August 2003.
"We're very disappointed as to the findings," said Children's Rights organization and plaintiffs' lawyer Doug Gray. "Not only are the findings disappointing, but DCS doesn't seem to have a plan to get in compliance. It's been 27 months and DCS has very little to show for those 27 months."
The 216-page report is the result of 253 statewide interviews with department administrators, foster and adoptive parents, and case managers. More than 400 foster-home records were reviewed, as were 115 randomly selected employees and 52 complaints. Reports on Child Protective Services, custody, caseload and staffing, and training records were also included in the assessment.
Key noncompliance findings concluded:
DCS completed timely investigations of abuse or neglect of foster children in only 37 percent of complaints reported between July 2002 and May 2003;
Data necessary to monitor children are absent (including tracking of adoption time-frames and foster-parent training) or inaccurate (placement history, permanency goals, investigation of allegations of abuse/neglect);
DCS placed a third of the foster children identified as being at high risk for perpetrating violence or sexual assault with other foster children not identified as being at high risk, a direct violation of the agreement;
Case workers made required "face-to-face" visits with foster children in less than 40 percent of cases reviewed; and,
Only half the number of foster children being reunited with their families were provided with services to promote safe reunification; families were only provided these services a third of the time.
DCS administrators have acknowledged the department's shortcomings but said they are "well on their way to coming under compliance." Although the monitor's report was made public last Tuesday, a draft was presented to Commissioner Mike Miller months earlier. "We responded [to the draft] with changes that we had made, and the monitor changed several of her findings from noncompliance to different degrees of improvement," said department spokesperson Carla Aaron. "Our position is we have made progress. It's a large operation with, in some areas, totally new mind-sets and ways of doing things. The judge realized this in the settlement and gave us 54 months to bring everything into compliance."
Aaron said the department's main efforts will be directed toward adequate visitations by workers for children in foster care, recruitment of more foster-care homes, and repositioning staff to meet these needs.
According to Aaron, more than 600 additional foster parents and families were recruited during the reporting period, and the successful adoption rate has increased to 97 percent (954 in the past year), with most being placed within the required 75-mile radius from their original homes.
"We knew the areas in which we needed improvement," she said. "The next report will show our real improvements."
Shortcomings highlighted in the report reflect many of the problems reported in the local Shelby County office, which Miller said had problems with training and supervision. Earlier this year, DCS regional director Juanita White resigned amid allegations of botched investigations into the deaths of several children. Miller appointed a 12-member search committee to replace White and hopes to announce a replacement within the month.
Gray said his agency is currently in a 30-day negotiation period with DCS to resolve the issues and said the need to return to court may be necessary.
"This department has a long way to go toward meeting its legal obligations to these children," said David Raybin, plaintiffs' co-counsel. "It's disturbing that helping vulnerable kids by getting into compliance with this settlement has not been the state's priority."