Mark Wahlberg’s “Instant Family” was one of the feel good films of 2018 and raised awareness to the foster care industry in the United States, but it appears the idea of instant families remains a distant reality for some foster care children in Tennessee.

The “Keeping Kids in Families: Trends in U.S. Foster Care Placement” report was released April 2. The data was released as part of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count project and uses data from the child welfare system for more than a 10-year period to study how placements for children in foster care has changed.

The State of Tennessee is currently facing challenges to keep foster care children in families, according to the report. The report states Tennessee has lagged behind other states, placing 77% of young people in families in 2017, compared with 86 percent nationally.

Richard Kennedy is the executive director of the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth (TCCY). The TCCY is an independent agency created by the Tennessee General Assembly and its primary mission is to advocate for improvements in the quality of life for Tennessee children and families.

Kennedy said the data found in this latest report can be misleading as Tennessee’s foster care and juvenile systems are structured differently to other states.

“Tennessee has a unified child welfare system,” Kennedy said. “This means the department of children’s services (DCS) provides services for not only children who are abused or neglected but also for the juvenile justice population.”

Kennedy said for other states, the juvenile justice system is a separate department which is not included in the Keeping Kids in Families report. He also said the age of majority in Tennessee (18) is higher than it is in other states.

“If another state’s age of majority is 16, the 17 and 18 year old’s in Tennessee are in addition to what other states are not counting,” Kennedy said.

The opioid crisis also complicates efforts to reduce the number of children in foster care not only in Tennessee but nation-wide.

“Babies who are born with neonatal abstinence syndrome are drug exposed,” Kennedy said. “These children come into the foster care system and the hospital counts as their first placement. This makes the infants look like they are not in homes.”

The Trends in U.S. Foster Care Placement report also found that just under half of teens in Tennessee custody were with families in 2017, a drop from 58 percent in 2007.

As is seen in “Instant Family,” potential foster parents are less likely to adopt teenagers. Kennedy said Tennessee has more teenagers coming into care than it has in the past, and there has been an increase in some of the behavioral challenges adolescents face.

“People have this fear of teenagers, that they are just sex, drugs and rock and roll,” Kennedy said. “The truth of the matter is they’re just teenagers, but unfortunately, people doubt their ability to parent these youths.”

Kennedy said Memphis leads the way in terms of thinking about opportunities to improve outcomes for children, youths and families.

Rose Naccarato is the director of data and communication for the TCCY.

“Tennessee has done well placing children aged 12 and under with families,” Naccarato said.

Memphis ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) Awareness Foundation, is an organization whose goal is to prevent, mitigate and help people recover from adverse childhood experiences.

“We need to wrap our arms around this problem and find caring homes for all children in care,” Naccarato said.

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