Number of young people under the age of 20 years who are committed to state custody during a given state fiscal year . Rate is per 1,000 population of the same age.
• Bledsoe County 1.9
• Bradley County 3.8
• Coffee County 5.2
• Franklin County 7.0
• Grundy County 3.3
• Hamilton County 2.7
• Marion County 3.0
• Meigs County 2.2
• McMinn County 7.1
• Polk County 3
• Rhea County 3.9
• Sequatchie County 4.8
Percent of children in foster care placed in state-supervised kinship care
• United States 26
• Alabama 12
• Georgia 4
• Tennessee 8
Source: Annie E. Casey Foundation
Tennessee ranks third lowest nationally in placing children in the foster system with other family members, with only 8 percent of foster children placed with a relative, according to a national report released Wednesday.
Alabama and Georgia had only slightly better numbers, with 12 and 14 percent placed, still only about half the national average of 26 percent, the Annie E. Casey Foundation reported.
"It has been a challenge for Tennessee," said Ira Lustbader, associate director for Children's Rights, a national watchdog group dedicated to reforming government child welfare services.
"There are some bright spots in the state, but it varies widely from region to region. This isn't rocket science; you have to hold the regions accountable."
But the Tennessee Department of Children's Services disputed the numbers from the foundation. The state's numbers for foster children placed with relatives are actually much higher, ranging from 17 percent in 2009 to 28 percent last year, according to spokeswoman Molly Sudderth.
"We've asked them about the numbers," Sudderth said Wednesday, saying the department had not received an answer from the foundation. "We feel like we have implemented the programs recommended in this study."
The foundation report uses numbers from the federal Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System, averaging numbers from 2009, 2010 and 2011.
The Annie E. Casey Foundation referred questions from the Chattanooga Times Free Press to Linda O'Neal, with the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth.
Exactly how numbers are counted can get confusing, O'Neal acknowledged. The Tennessee Department of Children's Services may count some programs that are not included in the federal report, she said.
However, all states are required to report the same numbers to the federal government which makes it an apples-to-apples comparison across states, Lustbader and O'Neal said.
The Tennessee Department of Children's Services supplied the data used in the report, they noted.
NEED FOR SUPPORT
Whatever the numbers, experts said the important issue should be to focus on placing children with relatives whenever possible and providing those relatives with as much support as possible.
"We know children do better when they are with families, with those people who know them," said Pam Brown, director of Tennessee's KIDS COUNT project. "The children who are with grandpa, grandma or an aunt or uncle know a different kind of support."
The foundation's report found that the number of extended family members and close family friends caring for children has increased almost 18 percent in the last 10 years.
Most of those numbers are not actually in the foster care system, the report found. In Tennessee, 5 percent of all children are being cared for by relatives, while Georgia and Alabama each had 4 percent.
These caregivers are more likely to be poor, single, older, less educated and unemployed, the report found.
However, many of them do not access available financial help, with less than 12 percent getting welfare and less than half getting food stamps, the report says.
"Any amount of intervention increases the financial stability for these families caring for their kin," Brown said.
The report found state departments had uneven progress in placing foster children with relatives. Hawaii places 46 percent, while Virginia places only 6 percent. Most of the Southern states ranked in the bottom 20 states.
Some states, including Tennessee, have a waiver program that does not require relatives to become fully qualified as foster parents to take a child. But some states ignore the waiver or apply it inconsistently, the report found.
Sudderth, with the Tennessee Department of Children's Services, said Tennessee is already doing many of the things recommended in the report, including having a relative caregiver program and a multiple response system that works to keep kids with their families.
After a class-action lawsuit was settled in 2001, Tennessee's child program is monitored to ensure it meets certain guidelines, including placing foster children with relatives.
The department has made a lot of improvements in recent years, Lustbader noted, but said placement of children with relatives is one area that still needs a lot of improvement.
"The answer is that it has to be set as a priority and executed," he said. "It's got to be a top down priority."