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LET’S SEEK OUTSIDE HELP TO REVAMP CHILD SERVICES

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There were some sadly familiar echoes of the past when the panel assigned to monitor state compliance with an agreement on how Utah's child welfare system will work released its second report last Thursday.

Again, the panelists failed to agree among themselves. Larry Lunt, a businessman and former legislator appointed to the panel by Human Services, issued a minority report that said the state needs to renegotiate the settlement, designed to end a lawsuit claiming Utah mishandles children in its care. He called the agreement, signed by the governor and key officials, unworkable.The majority report, written by Pamela Atkinson of Intermountain Health Care and Lincoln Elementary Principal Sherianne Cotterell, was highly critical of progress by the Division of Family Services and others involved in the child-protection system. They said compliance has been slow and inadequate. Just like the first time. Cotterell was appointed to the panel by the National Center for Youth Law, which filed the suit. Atkinson, who arbitrated creation of the agreement, was acceptable to both groups.

Also as as in the past, Human Services officials - including Director Rod Betit - questioned the validity of the panel's methodology and disputed the findings.

They did find areas of agreement: More work needs to be done (disagreement comes in discussing how much more) to see that all cases are handled appropriately for the good of children. They agreed it might be hard for the monitoring panel and the Division of Family Services to work together effectively with an adequate level of trust.

And they agreed that it was a Thursday.

Perhaps it's time for Gov. Mike Leavitt and the Legislature to seek outside help. And by that, we mean really outside.

Clearly, someone responsible only to the governor, who can approach both critics and proponents of the system with equal objectivity, is needed. Because before the system can be fixed, there'll have to be some agreement on what needs done.

It won't be easy to find that outside help. It would have to be someone skilled in management and negotiation and familiar with what it takes to protect children. But that person - or people - would also have to be far enough removed from Utah's child-protection system to have no preconceptions at all.

Everybody involved in the dispute seem to be genuinely interested in improving the lives of children who have been abused and neglected and thus fall under the state's protective arm. Both sides say they only want what's best for Utah's children.

But they can't agree on what's best. And the rest of us are left trying to figure where, in the chasm that gapes between them, truth lies.

Everyone in the equation seems dedicated. The panelists are volunteers who work full-time elsewhere but have nevertheless given the state and its children hundreds of hours in pursuit of truth.

Child welfare workers have wrestled with huge caseloads, enormous stress and frequent recent restructuring to determine how best to serve Utah's most vulnerable children.

And the National Center for Youth Law has done the state - and the child-protection system that now seems to loathe it - an enormous favor by pointing out deficiencies in resources, training and sheer volume of staff.

To those looking in from outside the battle, the troops seem pretty entrenched. It's doubtful, given the harsh words exchanged and the unbending positions assumed, that subsequent negotiations will have dif-ferent result.

And the children about whom the argument flares don't care. They just want to be protected and provided for. They just want things done right.