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New agency for abuse cases urged

DCFS resists state proposal to take away its investigative role

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The Utah Attorney General's Office wants to create a new agency to investigate reports of suspected child abuse, taking the role away from the state Division of Child and Family Services.

Assistant Attorney General Dave Carlson received a lukewarm response to the plan he presented Friday to the Child Welfare Legislative Oversight Panel. And at least one state lawmaker sees it as a proposal that could become highly politicized.

Lacking a quorum, the committee didn't vote on whether the idea merits further study. But Chairwoman Rep. Nora Stephens, R-Sunset, said she sees "some good" that could come out of having a separate division.

Carlson, head of the attorney general's child protection division, called the present approach "conflicting" and "confusing" for parents because the same agency that removes children from their homes also tries to help reunite them with their families. Parents don't trust DCFS and are often so upset that they refuse to cooperate with state social workers, impeding their ability to overcome the problems that led to their children being taken away, he said.

Case workers assigned to look into abuse and neglect claims, while bright and well-intentioned, are often young, inexperienced and lack adequate training, Carlson said. Subsequent decisions about how to deal with family are often made based on the initial contact.

Organizing a new bureau with sole responsibility to investigate reported maltreatment, he said, would help DCFS clarify its mission.

"Is it family preservation or child protection?" Carlson said. "It is possible for the agency to go too far in either direction."

DCFS administrators appeared generally resistant to the proposal, saying the state needs to give its new, legislatively approved child abuse and neglect report intake process a chance to work. The new process leans toward keeping families together rather than removing children from their homes.

"I'm feeling that the system is in pretty good shape," said DCFS Director Ken Patterson.

Patti Van Wagoner, associate director of the division's Cottonwood region, agrees the first contact with a family sets the tone.

Children protection, she said, is really about workers' ability to connect with the family.

"What we need is to have respect for families. We need to be genuine. We need to be honest and upfront," she said. "Protection is the most important task we have. We are dedicated to that."

Carlson suggested the separation could occur with little cost and that budgetarily it would work better given the agency's fiscal constraints. Robin Arnold-Williams, Department of Health and Human Services executive director, said she found the financial aspect of the plan "naive." Past experience, she said, reveals reorganization costs more than anticipated.

Arnold-Williams, who said she isn't opposed to studying the idea, questions whether changing the name of the division would automatically instill trust in people who lose their children. "We are (still) viewed as government," she said.

Before the 90-minute discussion began, panel member Rep. Matt Throckmorton, R-Springville, expressed reluctance to talk about the proposal because of "heavy political interest" in it.

Throckmorton pointed out that Utah Democratic Party Chairwoman Meg Holbrook attended the child welfare meeting for the first time. He also said he received seven telephone calls from "midlevel" politicos who wanted to find a way for GOP attorney general candidate Mark Shurtleff to get some "political mileage" out of the issue. He said there's a feeling that the Democratic attorney general's office would use the proposal to suggest Republican-controlled state government isn't doing enough to protect children.

"I don't think this is an area we should be playing games in," Throckmorton said.

Holbrook said she attended the meeting because the plan is an "especially important state issue" and she wanted to hear the discussion. She also said she went because committee member Rep. Trisha Beck, D-Sandy, was unable to go. Holbrook said she doesn't see it as an issue to be politicized.

"Children aren't partisan, " she said.

E-MAIL: romboy@desnews.com