Class Action Lawsuit Results in Transformational Change to Tennessee’s Child Welfare System

Washington, DC (February 21, 2019)—In 2000, concerns about the State of Tennessee’s Department of Children’s Services (DCS) led to a class action lawsuit focused on improving the state’s child welfare policies, programs, and outcomes. To address the concerns, Children’s Rights, a non-profit public interest advocacy organization had filed a federal class action lawsuit in 2000 against the Governor of Tennessee and the Commissioner DCS “on behalf of all foster children who are or will be in the custody of DCS.”

The case—Brian A. v. Haslam—resulted in a court-ordered Settlement Agreement; a strategy that is being used to promote child welfare system reform in states across the country. Tennessee’s end result is noteworthy because of the transformational reforms that took place during the two decades of litigation. Specifically, the State of Tennessee durably improved the ways DCS serves children and families and achieves outcomes, and successfully exited from federal court supervision in 2017.

“Strategic litigation can help spark and sustain system reform for kids and families, and we are proud at Children’s Rights to have been a part of real, durable change in Tennessee’s child welfare system,” said Ira Lustbader, litigation director at Children’s Rights. “No state’s system is perfect, but Tennessee has come a long way toward better serving children and their families. We hope these takeaways can help more states make necessary reforms.”

The lessons learned from Tennessee’s struggles and progress to comply with and successfully exit the lawsuit are crucial. Although the timeline of efforts in any state or locality will differ based on local circumstances, this case study offers a roadmap through a challenging process.

“We are pleased to see our hard work recognized and celebrate the successes in improved services that could not have happened without the efforts of hard-working and dedicated professional DCS staff, provider partners, foster parents, and advocates across the state,” said Jennifer Nichols, Commissioner, Tennessee Department of Children’s Services.

This case study is intended to help child welfare system leaders, policymakers, and advocates who are engaged in comprehensive system improvement learn from Tennessee’s experience, whether those improvement efforts take place within the confines of class action litigation or are driven by other interests and priorities in their respective states.

“States in every region of the nation are hard at work trying to achieve better outcomes for children, youth, and families served by their child welfare systems,” said Judith Meltzer, Executive Vice President at CSSP. “Their challenges are numerous and complex and thus, Tennessee’s experience in the context of class action litigation offers valuable lessons for other state and local improvement efforts. This case study attempts to capture some of the most important lessons from those who were doing the work in Tennessee.”

Download the full report here. 

About Tennessee Department of Children’s Services. The Tennessee Department of Children’s Services employs more than 4,000 Tennesseans across the state. Its vision is that Tennessee’s children and youth are safe, healthy, and back on track for success. It works to ensure forever families for children and youth by delivering high-quality, evidence-based services in partnership with the community.

About Children’s Rights. Through relentless strategic advocacy and legal action, Children’s Rights hold governments accountable for keeping kids safe and healthy. Children’s Rights has made a lasting impact, protecting hundreds of thousands of vulnerable children and we are poised to help millions more. They are depending on us…and you.

About CSSP. The Center for the Study of Social Policy is a national, non-profit policy organization that connects community action, public system reform, and policy change to create a fair and just society. We work to achieve a racially, economically, and socially just society in which all children and families thrive by translating ideas into action, promoting public policies grounded in equity, supporting strong and inclusive communities, and advocating with and for all children and families marginalized by public policies and institutional practices.