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An important milestone was passed this week when Gov. Mike Leavitt and the National Center for Youth Law signed an agreement ending a lawsuit against the state's child-protection system.

Perhaps now both critics and proponents of the system will be able to drop their animosity toward each other and focus their energies on seeing that all children in the state's custody have adequate mental and physical health care, safe homes and an "action plan" to reunite them with their families or find other permanent placements.It has been a tough two years for the Division of Family Services, which has been criticized by the San Francisco-based center, a legislative audit, community groups and the Utah Legislature.

Caseworkers admit they've felt unappreciated and at times unjustly portrayed in the media.

One point, however, has been missed in the debate:

The lawsuit has been one of the best things that ever happened for both the child-welfare system and the children in its care.

For years, Utah legislators have taken a band-aid approach to foster care and related programs. The sheer number of cases and the volume of paperwork have overwhelmed Child Protective Services caseworkers.

This year, as a direct result of the lawsuit and the negative audit, the Legislature approved what Leavitt called a "SWAT team" approach to fixing the system and put $13 million in new funding to strengthen legal protections for children, hire more staff, train parents and foster parents, provide medical and mental health care for children in foster care and expand services through pilot programs.

Most encouraging of all, the settlement guarantees independent monitoring and review of child protection in the state.

Although no one questions the need to protect the privacy of children, confidentiality laws have done as much to protect the system itself, shielding it from accountability for decisions made and actions taken.

The new three-person, independent monitoring panel, combined with citizen foster-care review boards established by the division, should go a long way toward assuring that the best interests of the child are always the focus of child-welfare workers.

No publicly funded department or division, regardless of its function, should be allowed to conduct its business as a closed system without any outside supervision.

The settlement also strengthens training for caseworkers and foster parents, sets standards for removing children from home, establishes time lines for shelter hearings and reviews, and guarantees medical and mental health care for children.

The attorney general's office, Human Services, the center and Intermountain Health Care's Pamela Atkinson, who served as volunteer mediator, are to be congratulated for resolving a divisive and frustrating lawsuit that could have cost taxpayers millions of dollars if it had dragged through the court system.

And the National Center for Youth Law should be thanked for shining a light on inadequacies in a system designed to care for vulnerable abused and neglected children.