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RISE IN FOSTER HOMES HASN'T CAUGHT UP TO CASELOAD

The state's campaign to increase the number of foster homes has been successful. But it's still not making much of a dent in the need because the number of children in foster care is growing.

"We're actually doing pretty good on recruiting foster homes," said Suzanne Timmerman of the Division of Child and Family Services. "But the number of kids in foster care is growing so fast, we're still behind."The recruitment campaign, lead by Gov. Mike Leavitt and his wife, Jacalyn, has increased foster homes by 32 percent. But the number of children who need the homes has risen by 26 percent. (Nationally, need dropped 30 percent.) Because the division was way behind when it boosted recruiting, the need remains great.

The LDS Church, parent teacher associations and the KSL Family Now project have all campaigned for foster homes.

The increase in children in foster care might hint at more referrals for child abuse and neglect. In fact, referrals are down.

"I think we're putting more in (state) custody than we used to," said Timmerman.

Right after the National Center for Youth Law sued the state over its treatment of children in foster care and the Legislature countered with reforms in the child-welfare system, "We saw a dramatic increase," she said. "Workers are afraid of making a mistake and would rather err on the side of caution."

"We do believe the lawsuit has heightened awareness that if it's a really difficult judgment call, we need to err on the side of protection of the child, which means removal" from home, said Robin Arnold-Williams, director of the Department of Human Services. "Before, we may have hung in there with families a little longer."

She said that while emphasis is still placed on strengthening and reuniting families, the lawsuit and the Child Welfare Reform Act have put parameters on it, listing specific expectations of both the division and the families.

"If we don't see progress, we're taking more immediate steps to achieve permanency," said Arnold-Williams. "When we have a situation that places a child at risk and the state has reason to intervene, we're saying to parents, `You need to step up. We're here to help you' . . . but if it doesn't happen, we have to be prepared to take further steps."

Timmerman believes the sheer number of new hires in Child and Family Services may also account for some of the increase in foster- care placements. According to the governor's staff, 56 percent of Child and Family Services staff have worked there for less than a year.

Without more experience, she theorizes, "Many are placing children based on their personal values rather than child welfare's best practice. They don't all understand yet how extremely devastating it is to be removed from home."

Arnold-Williams said it isn't clear what, if any, effect the fact that so many workers are new has had on placement decisions. Nothing concrete points to that as a reason for increased foster care placements.

But the lawsuit and new laws have clearly reduced the state's patience with parents who don't make significant and fairly rapid progress toward resolving abuse and neglect situations, she said.