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New study highlights reduction in number of children in Tennessee’s foster care system

July 16, 2010

DCS, Youth Villages partnership cited in 34 percent reduction since 2000

Click the image to read the study

Tennessee has reduced the number of children in its foster care system by 34 percent since 2000, while providing more effective help to families, according to a new study released by Casey Family Programs this week.

The study, by Casey’s Common Knowledge project, was conducted to share the examples of states and counties that have been successful in child welfare reform. The study outlines the way the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services has worked with Youth Villages, its largest private provider, to bring about reform.

“Tennessee is a jurisdiction that has achieved a significant and safe reduction in the number of children in the child welfare system,” the study concluded. The complete study is available at

“Child welfare leadership in Tennessee (including leadership by the legislature, DCS, and the lawsuit monitors/TAC) has been creative and responsive to implementing innovative strategies and supporting them with the performance-based flexible funding structure. Youth Villages has been a catalyst in this environment, but the environment has also allowed and encouraged the organization to be innovative and to expand. The partnership between DCS and Youth Villages has been mutually beneficial, as both organizations have worked toward improving services to children and families to safely reduce the number of children in the child welfare system in Tennessee.” – Tennessee and Youth Villages Common Knowledge Case Study, Casey Family Programs

“This is a tribute to the dedication and professionalism of our staff and our partners across the state,” said Dr. Viola Miller, DCS commissioner. “The hard work over the past few years required us to examine what we were doing well and where we needed to improve. We could not have achieved these gains without the diligence and vision of partners such as Youth Villages. Together, we are helping to ensure the safety and well-being of the children we all serve.”

Some of the key findings from the study:

  • For a reduction to occur more quickly, the number of children exiting out-of-home care must consistently outpace the number of children entering out-of-home care for a sustained period of time. In Tennessee, entries were higher than exits until FY06. The overall number of children in out-of-home care has been declining over the last several years. Between FYs 2000 and 2009, the number of children in care has decreased by 34 percent.
  • A decrease in the percentage of children in care at the longer lengths of stay and an increase in the percentage of children in care at the shorter lengths of stay may contribute to an overall reduction in the number of children in out-of-home care. In Tennessee, the percentage of children in care for less than 1 year has increased while the percentage in care for more than 3 years has decreased.
  • The rate of Tennessee children in out-of-home care per 1,000 children in the population has been declining and is currently well below the national average.
  • The percentage of children experiencing maltreatment recurrence in Tennessee has decreased over the past few years and is currently below the national average (but still above the national standard), indicating that the safety of children has not been compromised by the reduction.

Nationwide, more than 500,000 children are growing up in foster care or residential facilities in individual state child welfare and mental health systems. Many states are under federal court oversight that mandates they help children return to their families or find permanency quickly through adoption. In Tennessee, Children’s Rights, a national child advocacy group, brought the Brian A. lawsuit against the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services in 2000. A federal court settlement monitors reform efforts.

The study shows the number of children in state custody in Tennessee has fallen since 2000 from 10,144 to 6,702 in 2009. In addition, Tennessee has decreased the number of children in long-term foster care, and the rate of children in out-of-home placements is now below the national average. At the same time, recurrences of abuse and neglect in children have decreased, indicating the safety of reform efforts.

When Gov. Phil Bredesen appointed Commissioner Viola Miller to lead DCS in 2003, the state was failing to make progress on compliance items involved in the Brian A. settlement. The report credits Miller with the leadership needed to develop and implement wide-ranging strategic plans that brought change to the department.

“Tennessee deserves to be recognized as a leader in child welfare reform and receive acclaim for bringing the most effective help to its most vulnerable children and their families,” said Patrick W. Lawler, chief executive officer of Youth Villages. “Youth Villages has been honored to work with Commissioner Miller and her staff as DCS adopted innovative new treatment approaches and made difficult structural changes.”

Utah, Illinois and counties in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Florida and Washington have been the subjects of previous reports.

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