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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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Press Releases

Harper, DCS Chief to Hold Forum on Woodland Hills Escape

Press release from the Tennessee Senate Democratic Caucus; September 5, 2014:

NASHVILLE – State Sen. Thelma Harper and Department of Children’s Services Commissioner Jim Henry will host a community forum to discuss public safety concerns following the escape of 32 teens from the Woodland Hills Youth Development Center.

“We want to be sure that we are doing everything we can at Woodland Hills to ensure not just the well-being of the young men in custody, but also safety of the neighbors who are concerned by recent events,” state Sen. Thelma Harper said.

Commissioner Jim Henry will answer questions from members of the community.

“We want the neighbors to be safe, and we want them to understand the work we do,” Commissioner Henry said. “It is just as important for us to hear what the neighbors have to say.”

The event will be held at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 9 at the Northwest YMCA at 3700 Ashland City Highway.

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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.”

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Press Releases

Finney Requests Hearing on DCS Progress

Press release from the Office of State Sen. Lowe Finney, D-Jackson; October 17, 2013:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Department of Children’s Services Commissioner Jim Henry will appear before the Senate Health & Welfare Committee in December to provide an update on the department.

State Sen. Lowe Finney requested the committee meeting in a letter to the committee chairman in June. The legislature, which adjourned in April, is not scheduled to reconvene until January. The meeting will give lawmakers and the general public an update on any improvements that have taken place in the department, as well as any new issues that have arisen since the Commissioner last addressed the committee on March 26.

“I want to thank Commissioner Henry for his stewardship of the department and total transparency since becoming Commissioner in February,” Sen. Finney said. “We as lawmakers want to do everything we can to help him make DCS an effective state agency and safe and helpful caregiver to the children of Tennessee.

“The public is rightfully concerned about the children in state custody and how we can best address their needs, whether it be with improved technology for case managers or better tools for law enforcement. This update is critical to the legislature’s efforts to keep children safe and healthy.”

The hearing will be held at 9 a.m. Thursday, Dec. 19.

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Press Releases

Dept. of Children’s Services to Continue Three Branches Institute

Press release from the Tennessee Dept. of Children’s Services; Sept. 24, 2013:

NASHVILLE – During the coming year, the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services will continue the Three Branches Institute, an initiative bringing together members of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches to work with the department on strengthening the state’s child protection and juvenile justice systems.

“For Tennessee to have a strong and effective system of children’s services, the three branches of government must have a clear vision on the mission of the services, and confidence that the services are generating desired outcomes,” said DCS Commissioner Jim Henry.

The Three Branches model grew from collaboration among the National Governors Association, National Conference of State Legislatures, National Center for State Courts, and the National Council of Family and Juvenile Court Judges. DCS is working on this initiative with Casey Family Programs and the Georgetown Center for Juvenile Justice Reform.

In Tennessee, the Institute has set a highly focused agenda, including: developing a clear picture of how well Tennessee’s child protection system works; a wide understanding of the complexities of child protection work; using standardized assessments by the courts and DCS to guide their work and to allow for uniform data collection; implementation of evidence-based practice alternatives to incarceration in juvenile justice; and allocation of juvenile justice resources to support community-driven solutions.

The Institute is expected to meet quarterly through August 2014. It began work in August 2012.

Members of the Tennessee Three Branches Institute are:

Legislative Branch
Representative Joe Armstrong
House District 15

Senator Mike Bell
House District 9

Representative Harry Brooks
House District 19

Representative Kevin Brooks
Senate District 24

Senator Charlotte Burks
Senate District 15

Representative John J. DeBerry, Jr.
House District 90

Senator Dolores Gresham
Senate District 26

Senator Jack Johnson
Senate District 23

Judicial Branch
Judge Donna Scott Davenport
Rutherford County Juvenile Court

Judge Nolan Goolsby
Putnam County General Sessions Court

Judge Tim Irwin
Knox County Juvenile Court

Judge Robert Lincoln
Washington County General Sessions Court

Judge William Peeler
Tipton County Juvenile Court

Judge Curtis Person
Juvenile Court of Memphis & Shelby County

Judge Ken Witcher
Macon County Juvenile Court

Executive Branch
Crissy Haslam
Tennessee First Lady

Will Cromer
Office of the Governor

Commissioner Larry Martin
Tennessee Department of Finance and Administration

Commissioner John Dreyzehner, MD, MPH
Tennessee Department of Health

Commissioner Bill Gibbons
Tennessee Department of Safety & Homeland Security

Director Mark Gwyn
Tennessee Bureau of Investigation

Commissioner Jim Henry
Tennessee Department of Children’s Services

Commissioner Derrick D. Schofield
Tennessee Department of Corrections

Commissioner E. Douglas Varney
Tennessee Department of Mental Health & Substance Abuse Services

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Press Releases

House Dems Applaud Haslam DCS, DIDD Appointments

Press release from the Tennessee House Democratic Caucus; May 21, 2013:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – House Democrats are applauding the move by Governor Haslam to appoint Interim Commissioner Jim Henry as the permanent Commissioner of the Department of Children’s Services.

“Jim Henry is a great public servant who is unquestionably the best choice to move DCS forward,” said House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh. “His qualifications, knowledge and professionalism will be a stark contrast and welcome respite from the mismanagement and scandal we have seen from so many other Commissioners in this administration.”

Commissioner Henry assumed control of the Department of Children’s Services in February when then Commissioner Kate O’Day resigned. Since then he has taken positive steps towards fixing an agency that was mired in allegations of secrecy and poor handling of cases.

“We would also like to congratulate Debra Payne for being selected to fill Commissioner Henry’s role as Commissioner of DIDDS,” said Leader Fitzhugh. “This is an extremely important agency and I am confident that Deputy Commissioner Payne will be up to the task of leading this department with the same level of professionalism that Commissioner Henry did.”

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Press Releases

Haslam Appoints New Heads to DCS, DIDD

Press release from the Office of Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam; May 21, 2013:

NASHVILLE – Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam today announced Debra Payne as the new commissioner of the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (DIDD) as Jim Henry becomes the permanent commissioner at the Department of Children’s Services (DCS).

Payne currently serves as deputy commissioner of DIDD and Henry as the interim commissioner of DCS.

“These two departments handle some of the state’s most difficult work concerning our most vulnerable citizens,” Haslam said. “I want to thank Debbie for taking on this new role in such a young department. Her experience and hard work will continue to serve the state of Tennessee very well.”

As deputy commissioner of program operations at DIDD, Payne has overseen two development centers, a statewide community-based service delivery system supported by more than 2,000 employees, 475 community providers and three regional offices.

“I want to thank Gov. Haslam for the opportunity to continue to serve Tennesseans with disabilities,” Payne said. “I look forward to working with this department and all of our providers in continuing to offer quality care.”

Payne has a bachelor’s degree in Psychology and Criminal Justice from Middle Tennessee State University. She has served in numerous capacities throughout her career and is credited with assembling a nationally recognized Protection from Harm system as the statewide director of Protection from Harm for DIDD.

Payne lives in Mt. Juliet with her husband, Mike, and she has three children, two step-children and one granddaughter.

Henry was the first commissioner of DIDD, which was formerly a division of the Department of Finance and Administration before becoming a state department on January 15, 2011. He has headed up both DIDD and DCS since February when he became interim commissioner of DCS.

“I am honored to serve in this capacity with Gov. Haslam,” Henry said. “We have taken important steps at DCS, and we will continue to strengthen our processes and policies as well as continue to improve the department as a whole.”

The appointments are effective June 1.

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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.”

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Press Releases

Safe Harbor Act Passes Senate Health, Welfare Committee

Press release from the Tennessee Senate Republican Caucus; February 28, 2013:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Legislation which aims to improve health outcomes for infants born to drug-addicted mothers won passage in the Senate Health and Welfare Committee on Wednesday. Senate Bill 459, sponsored by Senator Ken Yager (R-Harriman), encourages pregnant women who misuse prescription opioids to access early prenatal care and drug rehabilitation. In exchange, they would be given a safe harbor from having their parental rights terminated through a petition filed by the Department of Children’s Services due to prenatal drug abuse. The safe harbor only applies if the mother meets certain requirements set out in the bill to protect the health of the fetus.

“The Safe Harbor Act of 2013 provides a woman with a strong incentive to do the right thing for her baby,” said Senator Yager. “Children are the innocent victims of the prescription drug epidemic. Early prenatal intervention can help stabilize the mother and hopefully curb the number of premature births or deaths and a host of other severe symptoms the drugs can have on the baby.”

Addiction to opiates can result in the infant having Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS), which occurs when the mother’s drugs are cut off at birth. NAS can cause the infant to have poor nervous system irritability, tremors, weight loss, stiff muscles, seizures, inconsolable crying and gastrointestinal disorders. Carla Saunders, a Neonatal Nurse Practitioner and Advance Practice Coordinator for the Pediatrics Medical Group at East Tennessee Children’s Hospital, told committee members their hospital is averaging about one baby per day born with NAS. She said NAS babies often require ongoing medical care costing an average of $40,000 before they are released from the hospital. This is in addition to later healthcare costs, additional school needs and social services to ensure that they reach their maximal potential through childhood.

The Safe Harbor provision only applies if the mother is seen by an obstetrician provider within the first 20 weeks of her pregnancy who determines that she has used prescription drugs that could jeopardize the fetus. After being referred to treatment, the woman must begin drug abuse or drug dependence treatment before her next regularly scheduled prenatal visit, and maintain compliance with both her prenatal care and substance abuse rehabilitation through the pregnancy. The bill requires treating physicians to give priority at public treatment centers to pregnant women seeking care through provisions of the legislation.

“As many law enforcement folks have said about the broader substance abuse epidemic, we cannot arrest our way out of the problem,” said Tennessee Commissioner of Health John Dreyzehner, who also testified before the Senate Health Committee. “I don’t think we benefit mother or child by discouraging her from seeking prenatal care in any way.”

Dreyzehner said approximately 60 percent of the 90 NAS cases reported so far this year in Tennessee are women who are in some type of medically supervised therapy.

Yager, who sponsored two laws passed during the 107th General Assembly to curb prescription drug abuse, said the bill dovetails with the Haslam Administration’s ongoing efforts to identify and curb the over-prescription of opiates. The bill now goes to the Senate floor for final consideration.

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Press Releases

Child Fatality Report Indicates 20% Drop in Overall Death Rate for TN Children

Press release from the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services; February 26, 2013:

NASHVILLE – The overall death rate for Tennessee children dropped by 20 percent between 2007 and 2011, according to information released today by the State Child Fatality Review team. Notable factors in that reduction are a decrease in sleep-related infant deaths due to suffocation or strangulation, which were down 16.8 percent from 2010 to 2011, and a 20 percent drop in deaths of black children between 2007 and 2011.

In 13 categories of fatalities measured in the report, Tennessee was identified as improving in 10 and stable in three. The reduction in total children deaths from five years ago represents a difference of 189 lives, the equivalent of more than nine Kindergarten classrooms of children.

These numbers are included in an annual report compiled by the Tennessee Department of Health and provided to Governor Bill Haslam and the Tennessee General Assembly Tuesday. A total of 31 interdisciplinary teams comprised of more than 600 Tennesseans representing 31 judicial districts participated in the annual local child fatality review teams’ work in 2011. Team members, who serve without pay, follow a process developed by the National Maternal and Child Health Center and conducted a robust review of 802 deaths of children 17 years of age or younger.

The data gathered by the teams is submitted to the State Child Fatality Review team, a group of elected officials, commissioners and other policy makers authorized by the Child Fatality Review and Prevention Act of 1995. The State CFR team uses aggregated data to analyze incidence rate and causes of child deaths to identify and recommend evidenced-based preventive actions to lower the rate of child fatalities in Tennessee.

“The review process is designed to put greater focus on the public health response to preventable child mortality,” said TDH Commissioner and State CFR Review team chairman John Dreyzehner, MD, MPH. “According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 40,000 children 17 years and younger die each year in the United States. The work of the local child fatality teams and the State CFR team is a critical part of state and national efforts to improve and save lives of our precious children.”

The report does not include deaths of less than 22 weeks gestation and less than 500 grams in weight, as those babies are not mature enough to be expected to survive. Of the 802 deaths meeting review criteria for the 2011 report, only three were not completed due to a lack of pending contributing information, such as autopsy results or legal investigations.

The 2011 efforts include a number of improvements from previous annual efforts, including:

  • State CFR staff conducted quality reviews of local reports to help improve accuracy.
  • The report format was revised and content expanded to include more comparative information with national data.
  • State Team meetings were held more frequently to follow up on recommendations.

Some key points from the Tennessee data show:

Of all child deaths*:

  • 62 percent were due to natural (medical) causes, including prematurity, congenital anomalies, cancer, heart disease and infections
  • 26 percent of all deaths were attributed to injuries due to motor vehicles, weapons, fire/burn, poisoning/overdose, asphyxia, drowning, fall/crush or other causes
  • Of all infant deaths, 20 percent were from hazards in unsafe sleep environments. Of those:
  • 84 percent were babies not sleeping in a crib or bassinette
  • 67 percent were babies not sleeping alone
  • 50 percent were babies not sleeping on their backs
  • 30 percent of all deaths were noted to be “probably preventable”

*Note: A death could be included in multiple categories.

“While we are pleased to have made improvements in the review process and progress in most areas of reducing deaths, we remain disturbed that too many of our children are dying from preventable causes,” Dreyzehner said. “We are troubled by the racial disparity showing black children with a higher rate of mortality. Most preventable child deaths involve complex societal and medical challenges, requiring a high level of collaborative efforts to make more significant differences. We must continue finding ways to build on our successes, such as the ‘ABCs of Safe Sleep’ initiative in Tennessee, to drive positive change.”

The complete Child Fatality Review report is available online at http://health.state.tn.us/statistics/Legislative_Reports_PDF/ChildFatalitiesTNReport_2011.pdf