NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — Those who first meet Taylor Hart DuRard would never know his past. He’s finishing his freshman year at Lipscomb University, majoring in law, justice, and society, but it’s been a long road to get here.

“When I was 11 years old, it was May 16th of 2016, he passed away due to the abuse,” DuRard said of his brother, Johnathon Hart.

DuRard and Hart faced severe abuse at the hands of his father and stepmother. Both eventually ended up facing charges after Hart died as a result of the abuse.

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“It was him and I. We had the tightest bond ever. He was the nicest kid. He would hug a stranger if he saw them crying,” DuRard said. “It didn’t matter who you were, he loved you.”

He wasn’t emotional, but it’s clear the toll it took on the 18-year-old. The memory of his brother cuts deep. “Even though Emily and Chris abused us, and they were hateful toward us, he died loving them,” DuRard said.

But now, Taylor is thriving. He credits some of that to the Department of Children’s Services (DCS) program called Extension of Foster Care.

Just like many parents continue to support their children after they turn 18, the program does the same for kids in foster care after they age out of the traditional system. The department said DuRard’s story shows why certain DCS programs need more resources.

“We need to make this program easier to access,” DCS Commissioner Margie Quin said. “One of them said we need homes, not hotels, and if that doesn’t hit you in the gut, frankly, I don’t know what does.”

Make no mistake – the department still has its issues.

It’s currently embroiled in a controversial case where children were taken away from two Black parents after a questionable traffic stop.

“The greatest challenges offer the greatest opportunities, and we have made great progress,” Quin said. “We have a long way to go.”

But the hope is that with some needed changes, the department will find its footing and help children in foster care do the same. 

“DCS has helped me come from an abusive household where I thought my world was literally, everything was against me to actually believe that there is a hope that people are willing to help other people,” DuRard said.

The department has spent the last year or so doing damage control, as one story after another published about its shortcomings. But things appear to be turning around.

Quin said when she came into this role on Sept. 1, the average number of cases for a worker in Davidson County was 96. “Today, it is 39.5,” Quin said. “That’s been reduced by two-thirds. That’s not where it needs to be.”

The department has seen an influx of new workers after the state approved a large new budget. A huge issue previously was the turnover rate, particularly for new case managers. That rate was nearly 97% last year, according to Quin. This year, she said that’s down to 15% from January to now.

“The raise in case manager salaries has just taken off,” Quin said. “The raise to $50,600 as an opening salary enables us to just almost immediately, from February 16th, generate 1,000 applications for the job.”

The department said all the new numbers are a good start but it still isn’t where it wants to be.

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“It’s not where we want it to be, and we’re going to continue to bring those down and down and down, and the more staff we hire, the more we’re going to see those caseload averages go down,” Quin said. “We want to see those caseload averages go down. It’s better for kids, it’s better for case managers.”

As for DuRard, he and his current adoptive parents started a nonprofit called Jonathan’s Path, in part to honor his deceased brother. The organization aims to help teenagers in the foster care system.