A group of people are so upset about the state of child welfare in Tennessee that they are risking their jobs to describe it.
Department of Children's Services employees, foster parents and others involved closely with child welfare say that state policies are putting hundreds of young lives at risk.
The latest figures show that last year, 267 children were severely abused when the state returned them from protective custody to their families.
The State of Tennessee wants to reunify families, to fix what's broken and get kids back with their parents, and the number of kids in state care has been reduced by thousands over the past decade. Just last year, nearly 75 percent of Tennessee kids removed from a home got to go back home in less than a year.
It may sound good, it may feel good and it certainly is the mission of DCS.
"I'd agree. Custody is the last option we take that is set out in the statute. Reasonable efforts not to remove children from their family," said Carla Aaron, DCS executive director for child safety.
But many of the DCS workers who are making this come true are horrified. They say they are pressured to get kids back to their families.
"You're constantly on pins and needles because you are hoping that the decision that you made or forced to make is the right one for the child. You're constantly in panic mode, hoping nothing will happen with the placement that you made," one DCS case manager told the Channel 4 I-Team.
These case workers point to the statistics that say in 2009 and 2010, for instance, 10 percent of the kids reunited with their parents were back in custody within the next year. Twenty percent were back in two years.
So, is DCS rushing hundreds of kids back to their parents?
"I don't know if hurried is the word. Anytime you have injury, that's pretty serious," another DCS employee said.
Under the order of the "Brian A." lawsuit, DCS case workers are allowed to have no more than 20 children in custody at any time. So, as they get new horrifying cases, they feel forced to return children to homes they sometimes feel are still dangerous.
State Rep. Sherry Jones, D-Nashville, calls the situation unforgivable.
"How many times do you get to beat up and torture children before the state steps in and says, 'You only get one shot at that?' Obviously you don't care, somebody else will, we will provide safety and a home but we don't do that," Jones said.
DCS says it is not driven by the case limits in the lawsuit, but Jones is quick to point out that reports show 267 children suffered a second severe abuse episode last year after being reunited with their family.
One long-time foster mother has experienced it firsthand. Badly injured kids come to her, then they go back to the parents and then later come back to her injured again.
"You don't know if they come back home, if they are going to come home alive or in a body bag," she said.
Foster parents, DCS workers and support service employees we spoke with feel like they are being forced to return children to their families that are sometimes still driven by demons of drug abuse, neglect and sexual depravity.
"To keep children in their safe birth family, to most people, sounds wonderful and reasonable, because they are thinking of their own safe families," one DCS case worker said. "You are not talking about the Cleavers."
And keep in mind the "Brian A." lawsuit that limits cases to 20 children. The DCS says this is not the force behind reunification, rather that it is core policy.
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