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JUDGE OKS SETTLEMENT OF CHILD-WELFARE SUIT

SHARE JUDGE OKS SETTLEMENT OF CHILD-WELFARE SUIT

A judge has approved settlement of a year-old lawsuit challenging Utah's child-welfare system.

The two sides announced an agreement last month that includes an overhaul of the Division of Family Services, hiring dozens of new caseworkers and revamping procedures dealing with foster care.The settlement came after the San Francisco-based National Center for Youth Law filed a civil-rights lawsuit on behalf of 1,500 Utah children in foster care and the 10,000 children reported annually as suspected victims of abuse or neglect.

U.S. District Court Judge David K. Winder told the parties he considered the settlement to be "fair and adequate" and so would sign off on its preliminary approval. He scheduled a hearing for final approval in three months.

In the interim, lawyers will attempt to notify everyone affected by the settlement and invite them to voice objections to the court in writing or at the Aug. 29 hearing.

While Winder was signing off on the agreement Friday, DFS workers were getting a short course on how the division's operations will be affected by the settlement and by the Legislature's massive Child Welfare Reform Act, which goes into effect July 1.

The act was in response to the lawsuit and a critical legislative audit that outlined numerous instances in which the division failed to protect the state's most vulnerable citizens.

The act departs significantly from what child welfare has been in Utah, said DFS Director Mary Noonan. It draws largely from system reforms in California and Ohio.

Noonan said some of the major changes come with specified deadlines for shelter hearings, preparation of treatment plans and decisions dealing with permanent adoption for children in foster care.

Although the effective date has concerned many DFS employees, foster-care worker J.J. Glazier said the meeting helped relieve some of her anxieties.

She is pleased by the stringent deadlines, designed to either repair families quickly or get children out of dysfunctional homes that show no signs of improvement. If a child's biological home hasn't made significant changes after 12 months, the legislation requires that another permanent home be sought.

In the past, Glazier said, she's seen children sit in limbo because hearings have been delayed for more than a year.

"This way, you know where you are at the end of six months. At the end of one year, you know what to do next. It's excellent," she said.

She also was pleased to learn that legal counsel for the division has moved from county attorneys to the attorney general's office, and funding was appropriated by the Legislature for 16 new lawyers to work specifically with DFS.