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IF THE ADULTS WON'T COOPERATE, HOW WILL CHILDREN'S LIVES IMPROVE?

Nobody was very surprised that a report on Utah's child welfare system found a lot to criticize. The problems in child protection have been long-standing and well-documented.

The report was released Saturday by a monitoring panel set up as part of an agreement that ended a lawsuit against that system and the state.David C. vs. Leavitt maintained that Utah's child-protection system failed to adequately care for the children in its custody. Those children, usually in the system because of abuse or neglect, were being abused or neglected again in state care. According to the lawsuit, children were languishing in foster care. They didn't get adequate medical or mental health care. They were being moved too much. Hearings were occurring too slowly. They weren't being removed quickly from families that were never going to provide a safe haven for them.

The list of complaints was long and painful, particularly when you consider that every "case" is the life of at least one child.

What was surprising in the report was the apparent lack of cooperation between the division and the monitoring panel. "The monitoring panel never received the supporting information requested" is a continuous theme.

When the lawsuit was first filed by the National Center for Youth Law, state officials reacted defensively. The attorney general's office complained that a bunch of lawyers were coming in from out of state (the center is in San Francisco) to tell Utah what to do. Never mind that without the lawsuit, nobody in Utah seemed inclined to address the issues it raised. Family Services and the Department of Human Services kept telling reporters that the issues are too complicated for people who don't work in child-protection to understand.

Try us. You don't have to be a social worker to know that it shouldn't take very long to get a child who's believed to have been physically or sexually abused or seriously neglected in to see a doctor. Or that it's important to make arrangements so children who have been removed from their homes can continue their education. Or that foster parents should be told if the child to whom they're providing temporary haven is apt to molest their other children. Or that a call saying a toddler is being "fetched" by the family dog should be investigated immediately - not sometime in about four months.

Eventually, even Family Service staffers agreed that the lawsuit had pushed things so they got some much-needed relief: More money. More staff. More supervision. And, as the monitoring report found, vastly improved training. Laws were clarified, the division was given a clear direction by the Legislature. Things were getting better, right?

Not entirely. The flames of anger, offensiveness and defensiveness that surrounded filing of the lawsuit burn bright today. They are even lapping around the monitoring panel itself.

The panel issued a majority report saying that while the child-welfare system has made some improvements, in some areas nothing has changed. The majority report was signed by Sherianne Cotterell, principal of Lincoln Elementary School, and Pamela J. Atkinson, vice president of Intermountain Health Care. The third panelist, businessman and former legislator Larry Lunt, issued a minority report questioning the monitoring process and the panel's ability to do the job it has been assigned.

Lawyers from the center, while believing they have a very clear picture of what Utah must do to protect children, said if Utah were really committed to solving problems, it wouldn't have lawyers in charge of the division.

Family Service staff say they're having a hard time making needed improvements in the lives of kids because they're so busy dealing with paperwork generated by system improvements.

And buried under all the layers of point and counterpoint are children who have already experienced devastation and need help, not debate. Until all those who are part of the complicated interlocking puzzle that is supposed to help them begin to focus on the baseline issues, that won't improve.