Senate focuses on improving outcomes for Tennessee children

From the desk of Sen. Steve Southerland:

(NASHVILLE) March 2023 — The Senate advanced many bills in mid-March, highlighted by legislation to improve outcomes for Tennessee children. Most committees set their final calendars this week, while the Transportation and Safety Committee and the Energy, Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee have both closed for the year.

Improving adoption and foster care

This week, lawmakers advanced legislation focused on improving DCS, streamlining adoption and foster services and protecting children from abuse and trauma. The legislation is part of a focus for both the General Assembly and Gov. Lee this year to protect children. In February, Gov. Lee announced his proposal to invest $190 million in DCS.

Improving DCS

The number of children going into DCS custody is on the rise, and DCS continues to face significant staffing challenges which are resulting in unmanageable caseloads for DCS employees and preventing the department from providing quality care to the Tennessee children it serves.

The Judiciary committee passed  Senate Bill 531 to help alleviate the burden on case managers by gradually reducing the maximum caseload per manager to 20 cases by Jan. 1, 2025, and reducing it again to 18 cases maximum by Jan. 1, 2026, finally ramping down to 15 cases per case manager by January, 1, 2027.

The current caseload max per manager is set at an average of 20 cases which has led to veteran managers taking on up to 60 cases at one time, while first year managers have 10.

Enhancing Foster Care and Adoption

For those choosing adoption, expectant mothers can receive support services paid for by the adoptive parents for the length of their pregnancy and up to 90 days post birth, as well as up to two years of counseling for the birth mother. It allows for a virtual surrender hearing and clarifies that surrender of parental consent may be made at any time prior to birth, but consent has to be reaffirmed after the birth of the child. The final decision cannot be made anytime before the birth.

Furthermore, adoption paperwork can be stopped at any time, and a judge may waive the six month waiting period for adoption if the judge sees fit to do so.

Senate Bill 528 is an adoption and foster care omnibus bill to eliminate red tape in the adoption process. Among other things, foster parents are given more input and participation in the cases of children who have been in their care.

Senate Bill 534 seeks to streamline the adoption process for a newborn surrendered under the safe haven law. It lowers the waiting period for DCS to file a petition seeking termination of parental rights of an infant voluntarily surrendered from 6 months to 90 days.  It also requires the court to expedite the case to ensure the hearing of the termination petition is within 30 days of the petition filing.

Senate Bill 535 clarifies that if a parent or guardian fails to visit or support a child less than four years old for a period of three consecutive months, the circumstances rise to qualification for abandonment. Furthermore, if a child resides in the adoption petitioner’s home for at least three months, the judge may waive the six-month waiting period for the order of adoption.