Report: High levels of “foster care instability” among kids in Tennessee care

By: - January 11, 2023 6:00 am
Conceptual image of a small child's hand reaching to grab a small soft blue toy bunny by the paw. The toy is illuminated by sunlight and shadows provide space for copy.

(Getty Images)

Kids in Tennessee are more likely to be shuffled from one temporary home to another during their first year in foster care than foster kids living anywhere else in the nation, according to a new report. 

The Department of Children’s Services’ high levels of “foster care instability” are highlighted in the “State of the Child” report by the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth, which is required by state law to issue the annual wide-ranging assessment of the welfare of the state’s children. 

The report, released Tuesday, follows months of public scrutiny of DCS that has revealed a litany of problems impacting the day-to-day welfare of kids in state custody, including children being forced to sleep for days at a time on the floors of state office buildings — and for months at a time in hospital beds, because there are no other suitable places to put them. Extraordinarily high turnover among social workers and unmanageable caseloads have left the department unable to ensure children’s safety. 

More than one-third of all Tennessee kids coming into foster care since 2016 have been moved to three or more different foster homes or other placements in their first 12 months in state custody — a practice with potentially long-term negative impacts on the well-being of kids who have already suffered the trauma of being removed from their homes as a result of abuse or neglect.

Tennessee lags behind every other state in the nation in providing stable foster care, according to a report by the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth, with twice the national average in shuffling kids from one temporary home to another during their first year in state foster care.

“We know getting that first placement right is so critical to a child’s success,” said Kyle Graves, the commission’s policy specialist. 

States that do a better job providing foster kids with stability reported that fewer than 10% of children are moved more than three times during their first year in foster care. Tennessee’s rate is more than twice the national average.

The reasons behind Tennessee’s lags in providing stable foster care aren’t fully understood, she said. 

Older kids and teens are harder to place, because fewer foster homes are willing to take them. The ages of kids in Tennessee custody trend older than the national average, Graves said. Kids whose mental health problems manifest in outward aggression and kids with medical needs are also harder to place in long-term foster care, but available data does not show that Tennessee has a larger proportion of those children in custody.

From the “State of the Child” report by the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth.
From the “State of the Child” report by the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth.

DCS did not respond to questions on Tuesday. However, in a 2022-2024 strategic plan, the department acknowledged stable foster care was a priority and outlined a series of steps to address it, including better assessing the needs of children, and the capabilities of foster parents, before placing a child in a foster home.

Kids themselves have told DCS officials they think “more emphasis needs to be placed on matching their interests, beliefs, and culture to those of the foster parent or facility” and that the focus of DCS should be on “recruiting foster parents across a broad spectrum of different beliefs, activity levels, and cultures,” according to 2021 department progress report that included a summary of a “listening session” with youth. 

“This data point is really kind of a call to action for Tennesseans,” said Richard Kennedy, the commission’s executive director

Kennedy said the public airing of DCS problems had left him feeling optimistic that the General Assembly would take action during the legislative session, which got underway this week. But, he said, meeting the department’s challenges requires more than lawmakers alone can deliver.

“We desperately need foster care homes,” he said. “The more foster homes we have and the more training, the better we’re going to be able to support children.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Anita Wadhwani
Anita Wadhwani

Anita Wadhwani is a senior reporter for the Tennessee Lookout. The Tennessee AP Broadcasters and Media (TAPME) named her Journalist of the Year in 2019 as well as giving her the Malcolm Law Award for Investigative Journalism. Wadhwani is formerly an investigative reporter with The Tennessean who focused on the impact of public policies on the people and places across Tennessee. She is a graduate of Columbia University in New York and the University of California at Berkeley School of Journalism. Wadhwani lives in Nashville with her partner and two children.

MORE FROM AUTHOR