NASHVILLE — One lawsuit, 16 years and hundreds of millions of dollars later, Tennessee's once-troubled foster care program for thousands of children has finally emerged from a federal court's oversight.
Gov. Bill Haslam and state Children's Services Commissioner Bonnie Hommrich on Tuesday celebrated the agreement, approved Monday by U.S. District Court Judge Waverly D. Crenshaw, between the state and Children's Rights, a New York-based advocacy group which in 2000 filed a class-action lawsuit, known as the Brian A. case, against the state over its troubled foster care program.
Haslam told reporters at a news conference that Tennessee over the course of 16 years has "moved light years forward" from how at that time it treated an estimated 10,000 children in foster care.
Most were in institutional settings, he said, noting that was what helped grab the court's attention.
"I don't think you'll see Tennessee go back," said Haslam, one of three governors who've been dealing with problems since the state's foster system came under federal court oversight in 2001.
Issues included violations of federal law with children taken into an overwhelmed state system, not being returned to their parents and not being made available for adoption or foster care.
Many children were kept in emergency shelters for months, the original lawsuit charged.
Ira Lustbader, litigation director at Children's Rights, on Tuesday congratulated Tennessee on the strides it's made since, saying in a news release the state's "sustained compliance with court-ordered improvements demonstrates that real, systemic child welfare reform is achievable in America.
"Failing systems don't have to be the norm," Lustbader added. "Legal advocacy can spark accountability over government and transform the way children are treated by public systems."
Today, the state has some 7,300 children in foster care.
It's now entered a phase where an "external accountability center," funded by the Department of Children's Services, will continue to issue public report cards on the state's progress in key areas for 18 months.
Haslam said the state has moved away from large institutional care with an emphasis on family reunification, placements with foster parents or outright adoption.
"Of all the things we do in the state, this might be one of the hardest," said Haslam of helping children through the system, cautioning there will continue to be "hiccups along the way. I can tell you there will be hiccups.
"But," the governor said, "I can promise that the state of Tennessee will get it. I think what you heard a federal court say is Tennessee not only gets it, they've become a model for how state systems should work."
Hommrich estimated the state over the past 16 years has spent tens of millions of dollars on legal compliance and hundreds of millions more on implementing a better system for young children and youths.
Haslam's deputy, Jim Henry, who preceded Hommrich as Department of Children's Services' commissioner, said "very few kids" in Tennessee are in residential settings today.
"Foster parents," Henry said. "It's the best care, the best thing that can happen to a kid is to be raised in a home not something that's fake."
Hommrich and Henry both praised DCS workers for the tasks they've undertaken over the past 16 years.
As a result, they said, DCS has achieved most of the estimated 140 foster- care benchmarks in areas ranging from family reunification, time to adopt, re-entry into the foster-care system, length of time in placement, parent-and-child visits and case-manager caseloads.
The state emphasizes family-style placement for youth in foster care in place of institutional settings such as orphanages. And officials say Tennessee has become a national leader in timeliness to adoption and in implementing a child-and-family teaming model that encourages birth parents, case managers, care providers and foster families to work together on behalf of a child.
For example: 85 percent of children entering the system are now being placed in family settings.
99 percent of children are appropriately housed in placements that can meet their needs, and virtually 100 percent of all children under age 6 are in family homes.
95 percent of caseworkers have lower caseload numbers within limits set by the settlement agreement.
97 percent of children on a track toward reunifying with their parents now visit with their parents at least once a month, with 80 percent visiting at least twice per month.
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.
This story was updated July 18 at 11:55 p.m.