For several years running, the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services placed more children in foster care than kids it returned to their families. In 2014-15, 3,078 children of 8093, in 2015-16, 2895 of 8,001, and in 2016-17, 1365 of 14,421 children returned home. We asked for more recent data but did not hear back from DCS by press time. 

Former Commissioner Jim Henry (2013-2015) supported a number of reform initiatives like In-Home Tennessee to improve how the child welfare system works with families. He promoted and found money for Community Advisory Boards and community-based child abuse prevention.

In 2014, Henry signed 42 contracts with 25 community-based agencies that provided support services to 3,200 children. Henry had the right idea: keep children out of the system by providing families with services at home. 

Those efforts started to pay off. The number of children taken into DCS custody in 2013 was 8426. In 2014 it was 8008. In Commissioner Bonnie Hommrich’s first year as DCS Commissioner (2015), the numbers dropped again to 7,856.  (See https://tntribune.com/how-child-welfare-was-fixed/

But during the Haslam administration, DCS moved away from reforms like advisory boards and instead built a formidable custody apparatus with federal and state funds.

The department operates like the mafia; it has tentacles everywhere. Judges are afraid of it; hospitals are, too; police departments do their bidding. Parents are terrified once DCS takes their kids, they will never get them back. DCS is also ubiquitous; it operates in every Tennessee County. Each year since 2015, DCS has taken more children into custody than the year before. Its budget increases every year. 

DCS likes to brag that it’s done this and that and more of the other but it hasn’t produced better outcomes. Many DCS caseworkers hate working for an agency that is focused more on procedure and control than actually helping needy kids.

As the Tribune has reported, long-time employees who tried to help their clients often found themselves at odds with vindictive supervisors who harassed them until they quit. They are replaced by inexperienced caseworkers who are not trained to be effective social workers. Instead, they learn quickly to apply often-arbitrary rules or face disciplinary action from autocratic supervisors. At least 20% of caseworkers leave every year. (See https://tntribune.com/inside-dcs-toxic-workplace/)

As we have also reported, DCS mishandles cases, does sloppy investigations or none at all, and it operates with reckless disregard for the families and children they are supposed to serve. It is not just a dysfunctional system; it’s dystopian.

(See https://tntribune.com/twas-the-night-before-christmas/ and https://tntribune.com/another-child-dies-in-dcs-foster-care/)

The two main reasons given for moving children out of their homes and into foster care are sexual abuse and severe neglect. It turns out children are more likely to suffer sexual abuse in foster care, often from other foster kids, and numerous studies show foster kids do not “do better” than kids who grow up with their families, regardless. 

One 2007 study by an MIT researcher, Prof. Joseph Doyle, looked at outcomes for 15,000 children in foster care. He compared them with comparably mistreated children left in their own home. On multiple measures the children left in their own homes did better. (see findings below) 

A year later, Doyle did another study of 23,000 cases to find which children were more likely to be arrested as adults once they aged out of the system. In that study, children left in their own homes also fared better.

A University of Minnesota study tracked outcomes of foster children from birth to age 9. They compared children in foster care and children under similar circumstances and found that the children left in their own homes did better. 

University of Florida researchers looked at two groups of mothers who abused drugs during pregnancy. One group kept their babies, the other had them taken away. After six months, they tested the babies using the usual measures like rolling over, sitting up, and reaching out. 

“Typically, the children left with their birth mothers did better. For the foster children, the separation from their mothers was more toxic than the cocaine,” wrote Richard Wexler, Executive Director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform. 

Richard Wexler is a noted child welfare advocate and executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform.

The effects of foster care on older children aren’t any better. Consider the findings of a 2005 study in Oregon and Washington conducted by the Casey Family Programs and Harvard University. The subjects were 659 young adults between the ages of 20 and 33 who had been placed in family foster care between 1988 and 1998. 

  • Overall: Over half of the alumni (54.4%) had current mental health problems, while less than one-quarter of the general population (22.1%) had current mental health problems. 
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): The prevalence of
    PTSD within the previous 12 months was significantly higher among alumni (25.2%) than among the general U.S. population (4.0%).
    As a comparison, American war veterans have lower rates of PTSD (Vietnam: 15%; Afghanistan: 6%; and Iraq: 12% to 13%). PTSD, depression, and social phobia may be the most significant mental health conditions of alumni. 
  • Major depression: The prevalence of major depression within the previous 12 months was significantly higher among alumni (20.1%) than among the general population (10.2%). 

“There are cases in which the trauma of removal, bad as it is, is less bad than leaving the child in her or his own home,” Wexler said. But there are relatively few of those severe cases. Wexler said multiple studies show that the only way to fix foster care is to have less of it.

We asked Wexler to describe the perfect child welfare system. 

“It would be one that focused on alleviating the worst stresses of poverty. Provide a guaranteed minimum income, plus, as needed, rent subsidies, childcare subsidies and universal health care and an enormous proportion of the cases agencies like DCS see would disappear.

Second, where substance use really is an issue, make high-quality family based drug treatment available on demand.

Where other help is needed, let community-based community-run agencies design the help, so it is geared to what families actually need. 

Abolish mandatory reporting laws, so professionals are free to exercise their professional judgment and families don’t need to be afraid to reach out for help.

Provide high quality family defense to make sure families can get the help they need – or simply be left along when DCS should never have been in their lives in the first place.

Shut down the group homes and institutions; replace them, for the very few youth who need them, with Wraparound services and therapeutic foster care.

Do that and there will be plenty of good foster homes available for the few children who really need them.”

Elected officials could get DCS to change course. Representative Gloria Johnson said Governor Bill Lee is ultimately responsible for Tennessee’s foster children. ““He’s their Daddy,” she said. 

Johnson and Senator Heidi Campbell are planning to introduce legislation to cap caseloads at 20 per worker and deal with other problems at DCS. Budget hearings will begin soon. DCS leaders will have to defend their poor record in front of the people who sign their paychecks. 

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9 Comments

  1. Yes Richard Wexler and I have been preaching the same thing for over twenty years.
    Here I am telling the indigent task force https://youtu.be/lk28zLv9DCc
    I have also told the general assembly and many lawmakers. And what about the adopted kids surrendered back to DCS, tha failure to place with relatives, ignoring cultural differences, and the trauma of separation of f a child from its parents. Enough is enough.

    1. Thank you very much for your great work. You are truly one in 1.4 million lawyers. You are one of very few who stand up and speak out for the most vulnerable families and children. You are our American HERO!

  2. Incentivized government kidnapping SHOULD NEVER HAVE BEEN A THING. Especially when there are no “Grady’s laws” in place (see Exodus 20:16.)
    I’ve written Congress to introduce “Grady’s law.”
    Have yet to receive any response.

  3. wow, this is perfectly written! This is what exactly needs to take place…end the trauma for everyone involved… yes, these clowns are so awful when there is a problem or families need help they do. not dare reach out, it is far safer to deal on your own…. this is treacherous to all the way it has been for far too long,. Change needed immediately… Children need their families…

  4. A foster child is speaking out on Tik Tok, she explains how the worker lied to her and how traumatized she was after being placed in 56 homes. Enough is enough

  5. After spending nearly 30 years in courtrooms across the state of Tennessee watching DCS, the only conclusion I can share is that DCS is insidious.
    They thrive on the power the rip children from their homes and place them with strangers. We cannot imagine, as adults, such a dramatic transition, and yet DCS workers do it every day. Half of the children they remove are under six years old: children whose whole world is the family they live with and perhaps a few close relatives. The psychological trauma of removal is ignored. We know that about 80% of the children removed from homes are done so on allegations of “neglect” not physical or sexual abuse. We know that DCS would rather place a child in a stranger’s home then place them with a relative or close family friend. The system is broken beyond repair. The workers that do develop relationships with parents and attempt to reunify the families are shut down by those “higher up” the food chain, for which I can only conclude are motivated with the endless Title IVe funds from the federal taxpayer funds that the state agency depends for nearly 40% of their annual budget. And for the bonus checks the agency receives when they adopt the child out to a stranger of which DCS received $768,000 in 2020.

    Top that with the inherent conflict of interest within the agency itself. A department called “Children’s Services” does little to service children and families and instead acts as a quasi-prosecutor that strives to adjudicate fault with the parents and label them as abusive. It is more of a government sanctioned adoption agency than an agency whose public policy is to rehabilitate families. The agency must be shredded, and the services of families cannot be in constant conflict with an agency that wants your child severed from your life.

  6. I am appalled by learning about the bonus checks for adoption to a stranger.
    The love of the money is always the root of all evil. This is your answer!
    Give the bonus to the actual ground workers that deal one on one with these children and their families. Let the bonus go to the parent that does take the serivces and learn how to properly care for their children. Get down to the root of the problem in the home and help solve the problem there!!!! That will keep the children with their parents and will educate the parents too!!!! Lord help us all and expecially the children!!!!

  7. Two days ago, DCS removed my two children from my care and placed them in foster care. I was still a patient in the hospital recovering from a C-section. Although suitable options for relative placement were available. Dcs wouldn’t place them with family. My daughter is only 6 days old and needs me. Now, I can’t even locate my children. I have not been informed on the names or location of the family they were placed with. I have not been able to reach the caseworker after making constant attempts for information on where my kids are, for the past two days. DCS did not file a court order before removing my children and are now hiding them from me to give themselves time to make this look legal. I can’t even use law enforcement to rightfully retrieve my children because I have no idea where they are! My life has been completely shattered. Evidence of the allegations made on me, wasn’t collected. I didn’t have a house study, they wouldn’t allow me to take a drug test so I could prove my children weren’t in any dangerous living conditions. DCS illegally took my kids. They have been kidnapped and are missing if you want to be technical. I have requested to talk to my son but have been ignored. DCS can not remove your babies without a court order and then avoid you and hide your children. I have no clue what to do. I have also requested my kids be returned to my care due to unlawful removal…and yet again…. crickets. I won’t sleep until my kids are rightfully back.

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