Press Releases

TN Supreme Court Rules DCS Not Required to Prove Attempt to Reunite Families Prior to Parental Rights Termination

Press release from the Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts; January 22, 2015:

The Tennessee Supreme Court held today that the Tennessee statute governing termination of parental rights does not require the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services to prove as an essential element of its case that it made reasonable efforts to reunite the child with the parent (or parents) before the parent’s rights can be terminated.

According to the Supreme Court’s ruling, the termination statute includes the extent of DCS’s efforts to reunify a parent and child only as one of the factors to be weighed in determining whether termination of the parent’s rights is in the best interest of the child. The statute does not require DCS to prove it made reasonable efforts to reunify in order to obtain termination. The Court overruled previous cases holding that DCS is required to prove reasonable efforts to reunify as a precondition to terminating the parent’s rights.

The case involves the termination of the parental rights of the father of a Bradley County girl. The father never had custody of the child and, in fact, spent the majority of his daughter’s young life in prison. He did not visit her regularly, and he provided no financial support.

Based on the father’s conduct, the juvenile court terminated the father’s parental rights based on the ground of abandonment by wanton disregard for the welfare of the daughter. The juvenile court held that, because DCS proved that ground for termination, DCS was not required to establish that it made reasonable efforts to assist the father. The father appealed. The Court of Appeals, in a divided opinion, reversed the juvenile court, holding that DCS was required to show that it made reasonable efforts to assist the father before it could obtain termination of the father’s parental rights.

The State appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that the Tennessee termination statute does not require DCS to prove that it made reasonable efforts to reunite families before proceeding with termination actions.

In reaching its decision, the Supreme Court compared Tennessee laws governing dependency and neglect proceedings with those governing the termination of parental rights. The opinion notes that Tennessee statutes on dependency and neglect proceedings require DCS to make reasonable efforts to reunify the family whenever it removes a child from the parent’s home. This does not mean, however, that DCS must prove that it made such efforts as an element of the termination case, because the termination statute does not require such a showing. Rather, the plain language of the termination statute provides only that the extent of DCS’s efforts to reunify the family is one of many factors considered in assessing the best interest of the child.

Therefore, in this case, the Supreme Court held that the Tennessee statute on termination of parental rights does not require DCS to prove it made reasonable efforts to reunite the parent and child. It reversed the decision of the Court of Appeals and reinstated the juvenile court decision terminating the parental rights of the father. The Court stressed in its opinion that, in ruling that DCS is not required to prove reasonable efforts at reunification, it does “not seek to minimize the importance of DCS’s efforts to assist parents who lose custody of their child and seek to regain it.”

Read the unanimous opinion in In re: Kaliyah S. et al., authored by Justice Holly Kirby.

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State Expands Funding for Foster Care Transition Program

Tennessee has become the first state in the nation to offer all children who grow up in foster care special services to help them adjust to becoming adults.

Gov. Bill Haslam on Wednesday announced that a program providing aid to foster children transitioning into adulthood is expanding through a public-private partnership with Youth Villages, a Memphis-based nonprofit that offers help for “troubled children and their families” in Tennessee and 11 other states.

“We’re now expanding the program to make it available to every young person who ages out of state custody in Tennessee. What that means is that Tennessee becomes the first state ever to make services available for a hundred percent of its former foster youth,” Haslam said.

The program’s aim is to help “a really vulnerable piece of our population at a very critical time in their life,” the governor said.

“The chances of finding a great job are pretty hard for anybody today, and if you’re coming out of foster care, the challenges are maybe even particularly unique,” Haslam said.

Since 2006 the Department of Children’s Services has contributed $9 million to provide assistance to foster children transitioning out of state care in partnership with Youth Villages. The nonprofit began their program in 1999 with funding from Memphis-area philanthropist Clarence Day, helping more than 5,000 young people in Tennessee since, according to an information sheet provided by Youth Villages.

DCS began their contribution to the program with $750,000, which the nonprofit has since been matching and growing to $2.2 million, said Patrick Lawler, CEO of Youth Villages.

However, the program was only serving about 60 percent of those aging out of the system. The state has now agreed to raise funding for the program to $3 million, matched by Youth Villages private donor funds, which will allow the organization to serve everyone growing up in the Tennessee foster care system, Lawler said.

There has been no increase to the department’s budget to accommodate the increase in funding, said DCS Commissioner Jim Henry. Instead, the department will fund the program with spending reductions in other areas.

Haslam said about 1,000 young adults aged out of the foster care system in Tennessee last year.

The program helps those in transition by providing them with a transitional living specialist, available for assistance at any time, to help former foster children finish school, find a job and become successful adults, Lawler said.

The state joined the federal Fostering Connections program last year, which “allows young people who meet certain requirements to stay in their foster homes until they’re 21,” and this expansion is the next step in serving this population, Haslam said.

“Everywhere I go I speak with commissioners, and occasionally a governor, often legislators, and every time they’ll ask us one question: where is this being done right? And every time we point to the state of Tennessee,” Lawler said. “The state of Tennessee, by far, has the most significant program for young people, especially vulnerable young people, and those aging out of the foster care system. And I’m proud that Tennessee is a national model.”

Press Releases

General Assembly Dems Urge Restoration of DCS Funding

Press release from the Tennessee Senate Democratic Caucus; April 10, 2013:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – House and Senate Democrats on Wednesday urged Gov. Haslam to restore funding to the Department of Childrens Services for core functions in managing its caseload.

“We have confidence in Commissioner Henry, but he needs the funding and staff to keep DCS moving in the right direction,” state Sen. Lowe Finney said. “Restoring that funding is the right thing to do when the department has had so many problems.”

Gov. Haslam’s budget proposal slashes funding to core services within DCS by more than $1.6 million. The department has come under intense scrutiny after officials admitted it mishandled the investigation of child deaths, and a computer system failed to track children in its care.

“We know that children are dying because of the mismanagement of cases at DCS,” state Rep. Sherry Jones said. “You can’t put a price on those lives, and restoring this funding will prevent needless deaths.

The cuts come at a time when state revenues are exceeding projections. On Friday, state officials reported that $33.1 million in excess tax revenues were collected in March.

“It would be unfair to take away resources while Commissioner Jim Henry works to turn DCS around,” state Rep. Craig Fitzhugh said. “We know our state has the money to restore these cuts. This is a bipartisan issue, and children’s lives are at stake.”

Press Releases

New TNDP Boss Challenges GOP Supermajority to ‘Prove They’re Pro-Life’

Press release from the Tennessee Democratic Party; February 5, 2013:

Tennessee Democratic Party Chairman Roy Herron issued the following the statement after Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam announced today that Department of Children’s Services Commissioner Kate O’Day has resigned from her post:

“As a former chairman of the now-abolished Select Committee on Children and Youth, I saw the Republicans eliminate that legislative oversight which protected Tennessee’s children. Far too many children have suffered and died, and it’s past time for Republicans to prove they’re pro-life after birth by protecting Tennessee’s children.”

DCS has been sued by The Tennessean, The Associated Press and 10 other news organizations to obtain case records of 151 children who died between January 2009 and July 2012 and had been the subject of state investigations of abuse or neglect.