For many decades in Tennessee, the families of people with severe developmental disabilities and challenging needs that could not be managed at home had little choice but to turn to state-operated Developmental Centers to care for their loved ones. For most people with severe disabilities, there were few, if any community-based alternatives.
In the mid-1990s, the state of Tennessee was challenged in federal court to revamp the way services are provided for people with severe developmental disabilities, resulting in the further downsizing and perhaps closure of some of the state’s Developmental Centers. Families like the Kennedy’s of Ashland City were understandably anxious. They worried not only that existing community agencies could not adequately meet the needs of their loved one, but also that they might be left out of the process of changing from the old way of providing services to whatever new ways would emerge.
Fortunately, families were consulted, and the state developed policies and practices that recognize the critical role of family members. Ralph and Tracy Kennedy and a small group of like-minded families took things a few steps further, however, and TFS was born.
I’m Ralph Kennedy, President of Tennessee Family Solutions, Inc. How did a businessman and Dad like me get to this place? It started simply enough some years ago now.
My wife, Tracy, and I have a daughter, Marla, with disabilities so severe that eventually we couldn’t care for her alone. After Marla was displaced from a community program in 1989 we sought placement for her at Clover Bottom Developmental Center. While Marla was at Clover Bottom, Tracy and I joined the Clover Bottom Parent/Guardian Association. However, outside of attending regularly scheduled membership meetings, we weren’t all that involved in matters of any real significance.
That changed in 1995, when we were asked to join the Parent/Guardian Association board of directors. The topic of discussion at our first board meeting was a class action lawsuit brought by a group called People First of Tennessee against the state, and a threatened action by the U.S. Department of Justice. I soon found myself representing the interests of Clover Bottom families in the settlement negotiations associated with the lawsuit. Soon afterwards, the magistrate judge overseeing the settlement negotiations, asked the Clover Bottom PGA to represent the interests of the families and guardians at Clover Bottom, Greene Valley, and Nat T. Winston Developmental Centers.
The settlement agreement was worked out, and it stipulated that all persons served in the state’s Developmental Centers be evaluated by an interdisciplinary team to determine the appropriateness of community placement. Nat T. Winston Developmental Center was closed. As things evolved I realized that just about all Developmental Center residents would eventually be recommended for community placement in community living arrangements. This impending and far-reaching change was downright frightening, especially since I felt that existing community placement options were insufficient to meet my own daughter’s needs. Like many parents, my main concern was that Marla be protected from harm.
Through my contacts with other parents across the state of Tennessee, and other states as well, I found out about a program that had been started by families in the state of Kansas. The families at Winfield State Hospital in Winfield, KS also faced imminent closure of the home their children had known for years. They were concerned about failure in community placements and the elimination of Winfield as a safety net for their children. The President of the Parent/Guardian organization at Winfield was a woman by the name of Sharon Bird. Sharon’s husband was the medical director at Winfield State Hospital and their son, Michael lived there. With the assistance of an agency in the Kansas City area that had affiliations within the Department of Human Development and Family Life at the University of Kansas, the families in Winfield started their own non-profit agency. In the spring of 1999 Tracy and I went to Kansas for a week and looked at programs in the Kansas City and Lawrence areas and also the Winfield program named Creative Community Living.
We came home from Kansas determined to bring this model of care to Tennessee. I realized that the changes that were sure to come for my child and for so many others, though unwelcome, could provide wonderful opportunities. So, in October 1999, a few months after we visited Kansas, our little group from Tennessee became a non-profit corporation. We came upon our name by examining what we were about. Some years earlier, at a press conference before the Tennessee Legislature, I declared that the hundreds of families I was representing at that time wanted to be part of the solution to the problems that we had perhaps unwittingly created by bringing into this world – children whose disabilities were so severe that we couldn’t care for them alone. We took my words to heart, I suppose – “family” and “solutions” are right in the name of our corporation. It has now been some time since we began this project. Tennessee Family Solutions (TFS) has completed its 6 year association with our Kansas mentors. The experience we have gained since 1999 has enabled TFS to become a successful community provider achieving our mission to serve those with severe developmental disabilities who otherwise might require an institutional level of care. While Clover Bottom is still currently open there have been no admissions since 1994 and this policy seems likely to continue.
My role with TFS began as President of the Board of Directors. Since 2002 I have been serving as Executive Director. My wife, Tracy, works in the TFS office. This for us has become a family affair with both of our other daughters working for the agency at one time or another. Our youngest daughter, Marla made the transition from Clover Bottom to a TFS teaching family home in a nice neighborhood in 2002, and we’re all pleased with her new lifestyle.
There are about 1,300 individuals in Middle, West and East Tennessee identified as class members in the Clover Bottom lawsuit and settlement agreement. Many of these have already been moved to the community, others will follow. TFS can serve only a fraction of this group, of course, but with the unique service model we’ve adopted and our commitment to families, TFS will certainly serve these people well.