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.
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.
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.