Facebook Twitter

LEAVITT COMMITTED TO CHILD WELFARE, BUT PLAYERS HAVE TO STOP FIGHTING

SHARE LEAVITT COMMITTED TO CHILD WELFARE, BUT PLAYERS HAVE TO STOP FIGHTING

Utah's child-welfare system needs repairs. Last week, Gov. Mike Leavitt announced the approach his administration plans to use to accomplish the task.

He's beginning with a leadership change, putting Lt. Gov. Olene Walker in charge of the Division of Family Services while it's in what he agrees is "crisis mode."Family Services investigates allegations of child abuse and neglect, provides services to families and operates the state's foster care program.

Putting Walker in charge is not an unprecedented move, but it's startling enough to show Leavitt is serious about revamping some aspects of the system.

He's also recommending an infusion of money - more than $13 million - to provide training for staff and foster parents, legal assistance and medical care for kids and pilot projects.

The remedy that really struck a cord with me, though, was announcement that a citizen panel of people not enmeshed in the Division of Family Services would monitor its work for a while, reporting directly to Leavitt.

Other states, including Florida, which had a beleaguered child-welfare system, put in a panel unconnected to the Department of Human Resources there to monitor its work. In Florida's case, though, the panel is a permanent part of the structure. Leavitt says Utah's panel will only serve until problems are solved, which may be a shame. With confidentiality laws, there's not a lot of outside oversight of a system in which we all have a heavy stake.

Individual voices have complained about problems for a long time. When the National Center for Youth Law announced a lawsuit against the state, charging that child-protective services is in many ways a misnomer because children languish in foster care and not all actions are in the best interests of the children, more voices joined what was rapidly becoming an angry choir.

A legislative audit, critical of the system, added yet another voice.

Leavitt said that lawmakers and state officials have been aware of the problems. But his announcement last week was the first time I have actually heard a state official - much less "the" official - claim ownership and promise concrete steps to a solution.

Over the past year, sides have formed in a battle that threatens to obscure the only thing that really matters: what happens to children in this state who are abused and neglected.

That battle has at times been extremely acrimonious. It has also been personal - individual social workers and Human Services officials vs. individual children's advocates and system critics.

Leavitt made a plea last week that gets to what I believe is the very heart of correcting problems.

He asked everyone to come to the table. Stop worrying, he counseled, about how the problems occurred. Quit trying to place blame. Instead, focus energy on being part of the solution.

I hope people heard him. But I am afraid that some of the anger and resentment goes too deep for a comfortable partnership among the people who care so passionately about how child-protection works in our state.

It's a shame, because together the people both in and outside of the system could forge a tremendously strong coalition for change.

I didn't see a lot of forgiveness and cooperation after Leavitt's announcement. Instead, I found some Human Services staffers who still resent the fact that someone from "outside" would dare to criticize the work of the professionals, as some advocates have done. And I found advocates who aren't sure they can believe that meaningful change will occur.

One thing's certain: That change won't occur if people continue to put their efforts into fighting each other, instead of problems within the system.

Personally, I think all Utahns should say thanks to dedicated social workers who are trying to protect children and to advocates who care enough to battle bureaucracy when they see problems.

And any social workers who aren't doing their best to protect children and people who don't complain when they see a crisis should get out of the way.