Children who rely on the child-welfare system to protect them have found some improvements since Utah signed an agreement to end a lawsuit that charged the state mistreats youths in its care.
But despite an infusion of money, the hiring of more staff, legislative reforms and increased training, the child-welfare system is still deeply flawed, a monitoring report says.The first report of a three-person panel set up to oversee how the state complies with terms of the agreement finds that in some areas, children are no better off than they were before the lawsuit and ensuing negotiations.
The report was issued at the last possible minute because panel members disagreed on what it should say. During a news conference Saturday, two separate reports were issued.
A "majority" report was released and signed by panel chairwoman Pamela J. Atkinson and Sherianne S. Cotterell, while a "minority" opinion was provided by panelist Larry V. Lunt. Atkinson is vice president of Intermountain Health Care. Cotterell is principal of Salt Lake City's Lincoln Elementary School, and Lunt is a businessman and former legislator.
Several weeks ago, Gov. Mike Leavitt said he expected panelists to find much to criticize. He was right.
The majority report found gaps in health and safety protections. Members also cited lack of consistency across the state. And a lament that state Division of Family Services managers failed to provide requested documentation was repeated dozens of times in the 100-page report.
But Atkinson and Cotterell said at the news conference and in interviews that the division has made progress in its efforts to improve conditions for children.
"Given time, the division can make corrections. It is moving forward," Atkinson said.
The National Center for Youth Law sued more than two years ago. The lawsuit, David C. vs. Leavitt, claimed Utah fails to protect children in dozens of ways, from not providing adequate health care to placing children back in dangerous homes to moving them around too much in the foster-care system. The division runs the state's child-protection programs.
Both sides agreed to have Atkinson, who served as mediator during negotiations, on the monitoring panel. The National Center for Youth Law selected Cotterell, and the Division of Family Services selected Lunt.
Each section of the majority report offers commendations, criticisms and recommendations.
The report says Utah still fails to provide good medical evaluation when a child is taken into state custody. Shelter and foster parents are not being given enough mental-health, dental or developmental information to meet a child's needs. Often, foster parents are not told of serious behavior problems before a child is placed in their home.
Noncompliance extended to protecting foster children's basic education rights and minimizing school changes. Some children have not been screened to see if they need special-education services when it seems to be indicated.
And the report criticizes investigative techniques, gaps in information when a case is transferred from one worker to another and problems with or lack of treatment plans.
While caseworker training and foster-parent training is getting better, supervisor accountability is improving more slowly.
The panel found the state did comply with terms of the settlement in specific areas, including caseworker and foster-parent training, improved involvement of court-appointed child advocates called guardian ad litems and in interagency cooperation.
Utah basically complies but still needs to do a better job of interagency coordination and notifying guardian ad litems of hearings and decisions, as well as including them in treatment planning, the report says.
The two women also recommended that the division not change a child's foster placement unless a foster parent requests it, the placement doesn't meet the child's needs or the change is in the child's best interests.
Lunt's minority report cites "flaws" in the majority report. He says the monitoring provision of the agreement is "unworkable and makes no recommendations for improving the current process."
It was clear at the news conference that there has been a sharp difference of opinion between the two women and Lunt, who said he had stopped meeting with them last week. He recommends disbanding the panel because, among other things, the group duplicates work already under way in an audit being conducted by the Office of Liability Management, an agency within the state Department of Human Services. He also said the panel "does not have the resources nor time to do the job that needs to be done."
He said the three-member panel's monitoring process is "defective, flawed and unworkable." If not changed, he believes the "process will sooner (or later) end up in court."
Lunt said if the "energy of DFS is exhausted in responding to quarterly reports demanded by auditors, monitors, attorneys and advocates, Utah children will continue to be underserved and underprotected" and recommended the agreement be renegotiated and modeled after an agreement reached in Arkansas.
Cotterell said Lunt's argument that the process is flawed "doesn't hold water. I believe the settlement is based on good child-welfare practice. In fact, it is mostly based on stipulations and standards of the Child Welfare League of America."
Utah is making progress, Leavitt says
While disagreement exists on child-welfare issues, all parties agree that "substantial progress has been made in the last year to improve the safety of children," Gov. Mike Leavitt said.
The governor issued a statement on "majority" and "minority" reports released by a panel organized to oversee how the state has complied with an agreement worked out between the state and the National Center for Youth Law.
Leavitt commended the panel and said everyone concerned about child welfare must remain focused on "providing safety for children." He promised the state will respond "aggressively" to the challenges laid out in the report.
Leavitt will meet Monday with more than 400 child-welfare workers on the "front lines of this challenge."
"I will tell them about the commitment of other state divisions and agencies to rally to their assistance. We will talk about the additional tools caseworkers need to provide better records of the thousands of children in their care," the governor said. "Next week I will announce additional incentives to accelerate our progress."