Utah's child-welfare system violates federal law and children's constitutional rights, according to a lawsuit filed against Gov. Mike Leavitt and top Human Services officials.
The class-action suit, filed Thursday in federal court, represents the interests of about 1,400 children in foster care and 10,000 who have been abused and neglected, according to attorney William Grimm, National Center for Youth Law, which is based in San Francisco. The suit says children in the state's custody "rather than being protected, have experienced severe harm."The center investigated Utah's child-protection system for more than a year before joining Utah attorneys Michael O'Brien and D. James Morgan in filing the suit. Grimm said the action followed repeated unsuccessful attempts to negotiate changes. It names Leavitt, Human Services director Michael Stewart, Office of Social Services director Ron Stromberg and Family Services director Barbara Thompson.
The National Center for Youth Law met with officials from both the old and new Human Services administrations, Grimm said during a news conference Thursday. "To this day we've had no assurance that children will be protected and workers audited. We have not received any promises of reform in a system that is deplorable. The complaint we've filed today says we will no longer wait."
Stewart said Human Services is correcting problems. "They haven't given us a chance. We have a new director, a new governor and a new attorney general. . . . This is like trying to change a tire on a moving vehicle."
He listed several areas where his department hopes to make improvements, including setting up citizen review boards and enhancing training. But he didn't offer specific changes or indicate when they would occur, according to the angry audience at the news conference.
"It's time we all take our heads out of the sand and start cleaning up," said a visibly upset Pam Rasmussen, a Utah foster mother. "These problems have been going on for 10 years now."
Foster parents who complain about the system are harassed or lose their licenses, said Penny Pilling, president of the Salt Lake Foster Parents Association. They are not included as team members, even though they are responsible for providing care.
Pilling said she has met with officials every month since June. "They listen, pat me on the head and send me on my way. No one has stopped and said, `What's in the child's best interests?' "
She believes a foster child was removed from her home as retaliation because she complained.
Donna Brown, a guardian ad litem volunteer who was terminated because "they said I got overinvested in the children" accused officials of not properly investigating reports of abuse. Brown originally got the center interested in the case after she said she couldn't get the state to do anything to protect children.
Seventeen children, ages 3 to 17, represent the plaintiff class in David C. versus Leavitt.
When David C. was 3, the suit says, he and his two brothers were placed in foster care because of severe physical and sexual abuse. One of his brothers died from abuse he received while in foster care. David was abused as well. Despite repeated requests by his new foster home for psychological counseling for David, now 7, the boy has not received therapy and is severely emotionally disturbed.
The suit says that Dora D. was placed in foster care following sexual abuse by her father. Since 1989, she has been in more than 10 placements. She has also been sexually assaulted, while in state custody, by several people, including a foster father.
Kenny G., 12, has mental retardation. The suit contends that he needs orthodontic care so he can chew, swallow, digest food and speak correctly. His teeth protrude so that he cannot close his mouth. Besides the medical consequences and damage to his palate, other children ridicule him. He was removed from his home because of severe neglect, including medical neglect. He has been placed in several foster homes and in one he was abused and neglected because the foster parents were not trained to meet his special needs. DFS has done nothing to procure treatment for the boy.
The suit cites several instances where foster parents were not told that children being placed in their care had a history of sexually assaulting other children. According to the lawsuit, children placed in foster homes have then assaulted the foster parents' own children.
The lawsuit asks the court to order Human Services and the state to correct the problems it cites (see accompanying box) and award legal costs. It does not seek specific monetary damages "at this point," Grimm said. "We want the state to take care of children. How costly this is depends on if there's a knock-down, drag-out fight. Cost depends on if we litigate the question or finally sit down at the table and talk solutions."
In Arkansas, where the center won a similar suit, costs may top $50 million to enhance the child welfare system.