Credit: Commercial Appeal

Somewhere, maybe still in Memphis, there is a young man who helped change the lives of thousands of foster children across our state. His name is Brian.

In 2000, Brian was 9 years old, removed from family for his own safety, placed in state custody and put into a “temporary” Department of Children’s Services shelter. After six months there, lawyers from Children’s Rights made his case part of a landmark class action federal lawsuit meant to help all foster children throughout Tennessee. It was styled Brian A. vs. Governor of Tennessee – Sundquist, Bredesen, Haslam.

Back then, it wasn’t unusual for children to lose their entire childhoods to the system. There was little support for programs to help children avoid entering foster care. Taken into state custody for safety and stability, children had little hope of successfully returning home. Many bounced through the foster care system, eventually aging out at 18 without further support. As adults, they were more likely to be homeless, have trouble with the law, never complete even a high school education or find and maintain a good job.

This week, a federal court judge successfully ended the lawsuit, although some monitoring will continue for the next 18 months. DCS met 140 individual foster care practice benchmarks and has plans and policies in place to sustain these improvements. Many states are under oversight; very few have made the changes necessary to go on their own.

It’s telling that although Brian was included in the lawsuit, DCS helped end his time with them successfully. He was adopted by his foster parents.

Change at DCS has brought hope to Tennessee’s most vulnerable children.

The three most important things:

A succession of Tennessee governors made ending the Brian A. lawsuit a top priority. They protected or increased funding to DCS – despite economic downturns – allowing reduction in caseloads, additional training and support for frontline staff. This has to continue. With every new election cycle for governor, we should ask each candidate thoroughly about on their plans and commitment to providing strong leadership and financial resources to allow DCS’ continued success.

 

Tennessee DCS Commissioners from George Hattaway to Viola Miller to Jim Henry to Bonnie Hommrich have changed the culture at DCS, putting helping families in the forefront. Many families receive intensive in-home services that can prevent a child ever entering foster care. If they do, there’s a laser-like focus on helping every child find a permanent home quickly and safely – whether that’s going home to biological family or an adoptive family. Hommrich and her leadership team have guided, challenged and inspired every staff member and private provider to work toward meeting Brian A. benchmarks.

Tennessee was the first state to institute comprehensive support for young people who age out of foster care at age 18. Through extension of foster care services to 21, an independent living program and Youth Villages’ YVLifeSet program, former foster youth in Tennessee have a much greater chance at success in adulthood, often breaking a cycle of family dysfunction and generational poverty.

What comes next? Youth Villages works in 13 states across the country, and we hold Tennessee up as a national model in child welfare. However, every system across the country is feeling the strain of helping more children in the most effective ways. Tennessee is no different.

Tennessee has shown that a large system can change and dramatically improve its services for children, families and young people who desperately need effective help.

I am hopeful other states will follow Tennessee’s lead.

Patrick W. Lawler is CEO of Youth Villages, a private nonprofit organization based in Memphis that will help more than 25,000 children, families and young people in 13 states this year.