DCS meets improvement goals after 15 years of federal oversight

By Travi Loller, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — After 15 years of federal oversight, the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services has finally met all of the goals set out after a 2001 settlement to improve its treatment of foster care children.

Commissioner Bonnie Hommrich briefly teared up after a Monday hearing on the long-running lawsuit, when she spoke about all of the hard work that has gone into turning the agency around.

“I’m elated,” she said of the development.

Although the department still must maintain compliance with the goals of the settlement for a year before it can ask the court to release the agency from supervision, Hommrich said she was confident the improvements will continue, even after no one is looking over her shoulder.

“It doesn’t end today,” she said. “This goes on the next day and the next day.”

Improvements include reduced case loads, better training for case workers and a focus on intensive in-home intervention on the front end of cases.

The scene in court on Monday was a far cry from 2013, when the department was reeling from problems that included officials not knowing how many of the children the agency was supposed to be helping had died. That scandal brought the resignation of Commissioner Kate O’Day.

U.S. District Judge Todd Campbell said Monday he was impressed with the progress.

“It’s been a bumpy road,” he said.

Ira Lustbader is the litigation director for Children’s Rights, the nonprofit that represents Tennessee foster children in the case. Speaking after the hearing, he praised DCS’s improvement.

“It’s in a place now to be a model for other foster care systems,” he said. “We’ve really seen a transformation.”

“The bottom line is kids are better off,” he said.

If the department stays in compliance for a full year, the settlement calls for another 18 months of oversight by an outside agency before lawsuit can be closed. That could happen before the end of 2018.