One day before hearings are to begin to decide whether to place Utah's foster care program into receivership, Gov. Michael Leavitt said he feels confident a federal judge will rule progress has been made and that the state can continue to oversee the program.
Leavitt said case workers and other employees in the Division of Child and Family Services have a gigantic and morally difficult task to perform daily. For the most part, they have done well."Solomon had to be good one day," Leavitt said. "These people have to do basically the same thing he did every day."
In August, the National Center for Youth Law charged Utah hasn't fulfilled its promise to protect foster and abused children and asked U.S. District Court Chief Judge David K. Winder to appoint a receiver to run the Division of Child and Family Services.
The center has alleged division officials are "either unwilling or incapable" of complying with a 1994 out-of-court settlement that required them to correct deficiencies and said it has no confidence in the department's ability or will to implement change.
To support their motion, the group's lawyers noted that an independent monitoring panel found the division out of compliance with the 1994 settlement agreement three times within the past 18 months. The panel's most recent report was particularly harsh, asserting that conditions affecting the welfare of children are actually worse in some areas than they were a year ago.
Leavitt disagreed with that assessment and said two audits have shown the the state is making progress. Despite the different views of what is or isn't happening in the Division of Child and Family Services, Leavitt said he doesn't think a special monitoring panel established to review progress within the division has been unfair. He believes monitoring is a good thing and doesn't mind the scrutiny.
"The problem is not the monitoring panel, it's the process we've created," the governor said. "What it does is it measures some 98 different variables in a file. What it measures is not the progress made with the children, but whether the file is in tiptop shape."
Another aspect of the argument is simply that two different people or groups will often view a situation differently, especially when it comes to progress made by the division. For example, some people think the division is too quick to remove children from homes; others say state officials leave children in homes from which they should have been removed weeks before.
"There are going to be disagreements here because we're dealing with the most sensitive of subjects: the capacity of people to parent their children," Leavitt said. "I've spent a fair amount of time with caseworkers out in the field and I can tell you, there are few clear victories here. I have come to admire the workers in this division as much as any state employees I've ever been around."
Leavitt wouldn't say what he will do if the state is actually put into receivership and insisted that scenario was not likely to happen, saying it would interrupt the division's progress and Winder has indicated a reluctance to do so in the past. He expects the arguments over the division's progress to continue for quite some time.
"You never get good enough when you're dealing with children who are getting abused, neglected and harmed," he said.
The center filed a class-action lawsuit against Utah in 1993 alleging the state was not doing enough to protect abused and neglected children and children in foster care. Even after the case was "settled" in 1994, the two sides have continued to fight over compliance issues.