By Anita Wadhwani, The Tennessean
The Department of Children's Services experienced "real setbacks" and "disappointing" progress in 2012, according to a new report filed in federal court Monday.
DCS placed more children in the foster care system for longer periods of time, allowed dangerous delays in investigating child abuse and neglect reports, and failed to adequately prepare older children leaving foster care for adult life, according to the 615-page report.
"In terms of improving its safety net for children and families, the state failed to move the ball forward last year, and that's troubling," said Ira Lustbader, associate director of Children's Rights, a New York-based watchdog agency. "I think the biggest problems were ultimately leadership and management issues."
The review is required as part of an ongoing class action lawsuit known as "Brian A." First filed against DCS in 2000 by Children's Rights, the lawsuit charged that Tennessee was violating the constitutional rights of children in the foster care system, and causing children irreparable physical and emotional harm. Since then, DCS is required to meet certain annual benchmarks. Two years ago, DCS was on the verge of meeting many of those benchmarks. Last year, the agency fell dramatically behind.
DCS spokesman Rob Johnson said the agency had worked closely with reviewers "so there are no surprises here."
"The department will continue to work aggressively to meet the goals set forth in the Brian A. consent decree," Johnson said. "Already, Commissioner Jim Henry has hit the ground running, and he has discussed his DCS plans openly with the public, the press, our community partners and the legislature."
The report did note that this year has seen changes for the better at DCS. Among the report's findings:
• DCS caseworkers took too long to investigate reports of child abuse and neglect. Only about 60 percent of children who may have been in imminent danger were seen within 24 hours, as required by state law and DCS policy.
• Only in half of its cases did DCS workers make appropriate plans for children and families after being alerted to possible abuse or neglect.
• Nearly 60 percent of 17-year-olds living in foster care had no help from DCS in making a plan for where they would live or how they would support themselves when they left state custody on their 18th birthday.
The report noted a $27 million glitch-prone DCS database for tracking children is functioning better, but still can't report important data, including worker caseloads.
In interviews with caseworkers who investigate child abuse and neglect, the reports' authors found some DCS staff were responsible for 40 or 50 children and families at one time, and DCS workers expressed frustration.
"One case manager said that their work is not evaluated on how many families they kept from breaking apart but on how many overdue cases they have," the report noted.
The report comes after a year of upheaval at the state's child welfare agency, which has been dogged with controversies over its failure to accurately report the deaths of children in its care, a child abuse hotline that lost callers to long wait times, and a central computer system that failed to keep track of children overseen by DCS. The ongoing problems led to the resignation of DCS Commissioner Kate O'Day in February.
Her replacement, Jim Henry, has ushered in a series of reforms since, including restructuring the agency, improvements to the computer system, creating a new system for investigating and reporting child deaths, adding more foster homes and reorganizing the division that does child abuse investigations.
DCS and attorneys for Children's Rights next return to federal court in September for a progress report.