NASHVILLE, TN – We can’t prove it. Between 2010-2014 the Department of Children’s Services (DCS) installed a new computer system called TFACTS. The Tribune has asked DCS for information TFACTS could provide. But DCS’s General Counsel, Douglas Dimond, has repeatedly said they do not have or do not track that data. They have it. They just don’t want to share it.
How many kids get returned to their parents? How many permanent placements get how much in federal bounty under the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997? How much in monthly payments do adoptive parents get when DCS gives them custody? How many kids, once taken by DCS, never get out until they turn 18? What is the case manager workload across all 12 regions in the state? How many monthly visits with the families and children in DCS custody do they miss?
The answers to these questions would show what DCS is actually doing with its $913 million budget. It has been playing a musical chairs game since at least 2016 when DCS stopped including performance and real outcome data in its annual reports to the Governor.
In those reports DCS gilds the lily and hides the truth by stressing process over actual outcomes. “Suppose they can show in 2017 there were fewer cases per worker. That doesn’t mean the kids are doing better,” said Richard Wexler, a prominent critic of Child Welfare systems in the U.S.
In the business world, DCS’s lack of accountability and transparency would prompt a major housecleaning. But this is social welfare for children and DCS plays the role as their champion and defender. Critics like Wexler say what they are really all about is taking poor kids from their families to feed a network of foster homes that collect money for strangers to parent the children DCS has wrongfully removed from their families.
The Tribune has reported a number of those cases. But to really know how badly DCS is serving Tennessee’s neediest children, somebody has to lift up the curtain DCS officials have dropped around its TFACTS computer tracking system.
It will take elected officials to demand access to TFACTS to get information DCS is hiding or it will take some brave soul who works there to leak it. There are 6200 DCS workers with access to TFACTS. One whistleblower leaked documents to Channel 5’s Ben Hall last October. Ultimately, it may take another lawsuit like the 2001 Brian A. v Sundquist case to force DCS to be more transparent and open about its operations.
In the meantime, the Tribune can report Tennessee is spending a lot more money than the national average on child welfare but not getting the results Alabama gets getting kids adopted or returning them to their parents while spending much less money.
In 2014 DCS spent $271,421,700 on custody services. In 2019-20, DCS spent $384,251,000 on custody services. The department is taking more kids into custody every year and that costs more money but children are not exiting at the same rate, so room and board costs have skyrocketed in 7 years.
According to the federal Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS) Alabama does a better job returning kids home. From 2015-2019, 70% of children taken into custody were returned to their parents. From 2015-2019 in Tennessee only 56% of children taken into custody were reunited with their families.
One third of children who entered the system in Tennessee between 2015-2019 were taken back into custody after leaving it. In Alabama between 2015-2019, only 18% of kids returned to the foster system.
Between 2015-2019, 78% percent of children in Alabama had two or fewer placements in their first year in foster care. In Tennessee, that number was 68%.
Rates of Removal
The National Coalition for Child Protection Reform (NCCPR) created indices of spending, removals, and placements for all 50 states. The data come from the Census Bureau, Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families (ACF), AFCARS, surveys, and state data.
With all those sources, it’s not all guesswork but NCCPR notes a number of caveats they considered before ranking states by how much they spend per child, how many kids they take into custody in a year, how many poor kids they take, how many kinship placements are not reported, which skews the foster care numbers in some states like Texas and Kansas.
“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics,” Mark Twin wrote in his 1907 autobiography. Richard Wexler, Executive Director of NCCPR, is well aware that numbers are often used to persuade people to a point of view. When they aren’t accurate or missing, that’s not good.
You can read about NCCPR’s analysis, methodology, and find the tables for 2019 and 2020 here:
The rate of removal index ranks states by the number of children taken from their homes for every 1,000 impoverished children in that state. The purpose is to “compare the propensity of states to adopt a ‘take-the-child-and-run’ approach to child welfare.’ NCCPR’s rationale for using children’s poverty rates rather than the total child population in a state is because child protective services agencies almost never take children from affluent families, and using the total child population would allow affluent states that still take large numbers of children from impoverished neighborhoods to camouflage this fact.
The removal index does not use a “snapshot” at the end of the fiscal year to rank states but rather custody numbers over the course of a year and it compares them to the number of children living in poverty in each state using the Census Bureau’s last three population surveys.
Wexler argues that using poverty statistics is a more accurate way to assess child welfare in the U.S. But he notes that ACF is not enforcing regulations that require states to report “hidden foster care” placements with relatives, and states like Texas and Virginia simply do not report them.
2020 NCCPR RATE-OF-REMOVAL INDEX
|State||Average number of children living in poverty, 2018-2020||Entries into foster care, 2020||Rate-of-Removal per thousand impoverished children||Rank|
2020 NCCPR RATE-OF-PLACEMENT INDEX
|State||Average number of children living in poverty, 2018-2020||Children in Foster Care, Sept. 30, 2020||Rate-of-Placement per thousand impoverished children||Rank|
“The point is, Tennessee is an outlier – it takes away far too many children and that problem drives everything else,” Wexler told the Tribune. Such widespread kidnapping by the state–when it’s not justified—drives practice, drives financial incentives, drives foster care recruitment, drives contract provider contracts—the full monty.
In 2019, the rate of removal in Tennessee was more than 20% above the national average. In 2020 it was about 10% above the national average but because of COVID, 2020 data may not be as reliable as 2019 numbers, which are worse than 2020.
Rates of Spending
NCCPR compared 2018 child welfare spending among the states and like the other indices, they divided spending both by the total child population and the number of impoverished children in each state.
“Because poverty both contributes to actual child abuse and neglect and is so often confused with child neglect, we believe this is the fairer measure,” said the May 2021 press release.
The report notes some caveats: it does not factor in cost of living among states, it does combine all federal, state, and local child welfare expenditures but not figures where counties run their own welfare systems. The data come from voluntary surveys.
“Despite these limitations, we believe that the comparison is useful for determining “outliers” – that is, states which spend far more, or far less, than average. And we believe it is useful for noting significant differences among states,” the report said.
NCCPR 2018 RATE-OF-SPENDING INDEX, Impoverished Children
|State||Impoverished child population||Child Welfare Spending||Spending per impoverished child||Rank|
NCCPR 2018 RATE-OF-SPENDING INDEX, TOTAL CHILD POPULATION
|State||Child population, 2018||Child Welfare Spending, 2018||Spending per child||Rank|
“It turns out Tennessee spends at a rate above the national average, Alabama is below the national average, but Alabama gets better results. Part of the reason: foster care costs more than keeping families together. In child welfare the worse the option, the more it costs,” Wexler said.
No wonder DCS is hiding the TFACTS data. It spends more money but gets worse outcomes than neighboring Alabama.