Two years is a long time for a child.
Lost teeth, first days of school, learning to ride a bike -- countless milestones are reached when a girl grows from 5 years old to 7, or a boy from 3 to 5.
That's partly why federal laws urge states to move children in their custody quickly from foster care to a permanent home. A quick end to the limbo of state custody is critical for a child's well-being, federal agencies say.
But the Tennessee Valley has one of the worst records for timely adoptions in the state. In the 2013-2014 fiscal year, only 24 percent of the region's adoptions were finalized within two years of the date the child entered state custody, according to the Tennessee Department of Children's Services.
ADOPTIONS WITHIN 24 MONTHS OF ENTERING STATE CUSTODY*
Upper Cumberland: 65.7 percent
East: 55.5 percent
Mid-Cumberland: 55.4 percent
Knox: 54.1 percent
Northwest: 50 percent
Southwest: 37.4 percent
Davidson: 36.7 percent
Northeast: 36.1 percent
Smoky Mountain: 36.1 percent
Shelby: 33.8 percent
Tennessee Valley: 24 percent
South Central: 20.8 percent
* Descending order, by region
Source: Tennessee Department of Children's Services
NUMBER OF ADOPTIONS FINALIZED BY REGION, 2013- 2014 FISCAL YEAR
Smoky Mountain: 170
Upper Cumberland: 132
Tennessee Valley: 81
South Central: 17
Source: Department of Children's Services
That's the second-lowest percentage in the state, and well below other regions, where the numbers more typically range between 36 and 55 percent. In the state's top region, 65 percent of adoptions are finalized within two years. The average for all regions is 42 percent.
"Our little boy took three years to adopt," said one foster mom, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid damaging her relationship with DCS. "It's taking so long. You've got to look at the regional leadership, the court system and the judicial system. Why are we allowing this to happen?"
Experts say a myriad of factors affect adoption rates and it's hard to connect the Tennessee Valley's low numbers to any one aspect in particular. Rather, the slow pace is likely the result of multiple factors -- though not everyone agrees on which ones.
Local foster parents say DCS case workers are overworked and that the agency places a heavy focus on reuniting children with their biological parents, often giving the parents extra chances to earn back their child's custody -- a process that can drag on for months.
But leaders at DCS say the process to terminate the biological parents' rights and initiate adoption is inherently complicated and time-consuming, and that each case is unique so it's difficult to draw a sweeping conclusion about a region's efficiency based on one overall number.
"This is a very tough measure because the adoption process itself is very time-consuming," said Bonnie Hommrich, deputy commissioner for child programs. "It's a very hard measure to make within 24 months."
Plus, the total number of adoptions that a region completes each year can sway where it ends up in the statewide rankings, she added. Regions that do fewer adoptions are more affected by a few stalled adoptions than regions that handle significantly more adoptions.
In the Tennessee Valley's 11-county region, 81 adoptions were finalized in the 2013-2014 fiscal year. In North Cumberland -- the region ranked the highest for quick adoptions -- the number was 132.
Yet while the state's Northwest region completed only 20 adoptions in the period, the area still ranked higher than the Tennessee Valley: It closed 39 percent of adoptions within two years, compared to the Valley's 24 percent.
The socioeconomic makeup of a region matters, because most adoptions tend to spring from moderate-income households, said Megan Lestino, director of public affairs at the National Council for Adoption.
And the children themselves can shape those regional differences, she added.
"Sometimes children have specific medical or emotional needs related to their previous experience; sometimes children are in sibling groups, sometimes it's that older children tend to be more difficult to place or are resistant to adoption," she said. "There are a lot of things at play."
And in addition to those factors, the process requires input from dozens of people, from attorneys to judges to case workers to foster parents.
Before a child can be adopted, the biological parents' parental rights must be legally terminated. That process can easily take eight or more months, and federal law doesn't require the termination process to start until a child has been in custody for 15 of the last 22 months.
During those 15 months, case workers are doing everything they can -- reasonable efforts, federal law calls it -- to reunite the child with his or her parents. That time frame and focus grates on some local foster parents.
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"Birth parents are given way too much leniency," said another foster mom who's been fostering in the Tennessee Valley for between three and five years. "They're not being held accountable in a timely manner that would benefit the foster child."
Although Tennessee law allows the state to terminate parental rights after a child has been in custody for just six months under some circumstances, foster parents say they almost never see terminations start before 12 months.
Case workers often drive birth parents to their drug rehabilitation sessions and go the extra mile to ensure the parents achieve the agency's goals, even knocking on doors to get parents out of bed, foster parents said. They say the case worker's efforts can make parents look ready to take their child back when they really aren't.
"DCS' goal is to reunite at pretty much all costs," the second foster mom said. "It looks good on paper when the kids go back home. But sometimes that's at the cost of the kids."
DCS data shows more children are returned to their parents than adopted into new families. Statewide, about 3,500 children were reunited with their parents during the 2013-2014 fiscal year, while 1,100 were adopted.
But Hommrich said the agency doesn't favor reunification over adoption or vice versa.
"I feel pretty strongly that we have to remain neutral on that," she said. "We want what is in the child's best interest. But remember, the federal law basically says you have to work with that family for 15 months and try everything you can. So in a way, the law itself is biased toward the child returning to the parent."
And while the Tennessee Valley's percentage of kids adopted within 24 months is one of the lowest in the state, it's not far from the national median of about 33 percent, according to a 2012 report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
While most Tennessee regions outperformed that mark, timeliness to adoption remains troublesome nationwide, according to the report.
"Overall, national performance on timeliness of adoptions has improved, but it continues to be a significant challenge for most states," the report reads. "It is important to note that there may be a variety of factors that contribute to lower performance on these measures, and these factors may vary considerably between states."
Contact staff reporter Shelly Bradbury at 423-757-6525 or firstname.lastname@example.org with tips or story ideas.