JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — A recent state report confirms what many local foster families already knew — Tennessee’s foster system faces extreme instability.
Last week, the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth reported Tennessee’s instability is the highest in the country. The State of the Child Report for 2022 found the state to have the highest rate of foster care instability in the nation since 2016, falling at 33.7% this year.
More than one-third of children entering foster care since 2016 moved placements two or more times.
State Rep. David Hawk (R-Greeneville) told News Channel 11 the instability is “unacceptable.”
Though local foster parents recognize that the Department of Child Services faces a lot of challenges, they think the DCS can do more to support foster children and foster parents.
Brandon Waite, a Johnson City foster parent, said the instability at DCS was evident as soon as he began fostering his now-adopted daughter.
He said it took months for a caseworker to reach out with critical information like the child’s social security and insurance information.
“We didn’t have like basic stuff that you would need to take a kid to the doctor, for instance, like if I took her to the doctor, be trying to convince people that she was my kid,” Waite told News Channel 11.
Waite isn’t alone. Christina Maiden fostered from 2019 until 2021. She struggled to get support from DCS when her foster children had behavior issues like violence and drug use.
Her Johnson City home was the first, but not the last, placement for multiple foster children.
“What I’ve seen repetitively from other families who are first placement working straight from DCS, the kids are not given the resources in that first home until they’ve moved multiple homes,” Maiden said. “Then they’re finally given the resources that they need.”
She says that constantly changing caseworkers didn’t help.
“Our first two years with our two first children are not bad, because we had the same caseworker for two years,” Maiden said.
Waite said he thinks investing in more caseworkers might solve another of DCS’s problems, the shortage of foster families.
“I think if more families had a good experience, there would be more foster families,” Waite said. “But as it is, when people hear about DCS, they don’t hear good things.”
Planning for permanence
Former foster parent Amber Stewart said in addition to supporting foster parents and kids, the state should invest more resources into helping parents regain custody and keeping them accountable.
Parents of children in the foster system are required to design a “permanency plan” with specific benchmarks they must meet in order to regain custody. DCS is required to begin the process for Termination of Parental Rights (TPR) if a child remains in foster care for 15 months within the period of 22 months, with a few exceptions.
One set of sisters Stewart fostered stayed in her home for nearly six years while their mother struggled to complete a permanency plan.
“They need an assigned caseworker to the biological parents to actually see what do you really need help with,” Stewart said.
Stewart said parents should be held more accountable to the permanency plans and be supported in those plans in order to prevent cases like hers.
Waite said DCS shouldn’t shoulder the entire burden of reunification.
“In reality, it’s a lot of other systems outside of DCS that are broken, that these families aren’t getting the support they need in order to survive and thrive and flourish,” he said.
Still, he thinks DCS could do more.
“If they really do want to focus on reuniting parents with their kids. Then they need to put their money where their mouth is,” said Waite.