The Division of Child and Family Services is falling short of plans for improvements to its child welfare system and has been ineffective in overcoming barriers to make those improvements, the latest review of the agency says.
The review was received less than two weeks before then-DCFS director Ken Patterson was fired as head of the embattled agency.
Midway through the annual court-ordered review of DCFS, the conclusion is already that "performance is not improving," according to a Feb. 25 letter from Paul Vincent, director of the Alabama-based Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group.
"Many of the steps that the division outlines to respond to incomplete Milestone Plan achievement are an intent to plan, rather than a clear set of strategies to address existing barriers," Vincent wrote to Patterson. "System performance scores are actually declining compared to last year."
Specifically, the Feb. 25 letter charges that the division continues to make budget-driven decisions that leave children without needed care and staff overloaded with cases.
"I have up until now hesitated to raise my concerns to a level that involves informing the National Center for Youth Law as I hoped that I would see some indication that solutions would be found internally.
That has not happened," Vincent concludes. "I do not feel that I can conscientiously let system performance and Milestone progress go unaddressed."
Vincent's letter was the second in two months in which he criticized DCFS for ineffective attempts to implement the nine-point Milestone Plan, which was drafted in 1999 after a court order from U.S. District Judge Tena Campbell. DCFS will continue under court supervision until it meets all the exit goals of the plan.
A Jan. 30 letter to Patterson said that in spite of intensive staff training, Vincent was finding "little evidence of incorporation of practice model approaches in case files." In addition, the six-page letter cites problems with access to health care for clients, shoddy case process reviews, a lack of mentoring and support for staff, high turnover rates and departures from original implementation plans.
Vincent, who is in Salt Lake City this week conducting more reviews, said he would "continue to raise these issues" until he sees a change. The rural areas of the state are doing a better job of making changes than those along the Wasatch Front, he said.
"I think the state will never exit from (the lawsuit) if they don't make the practice improvements in the valley; it's more than half their (statewide) case load," Vincent said.
Vincent's recent letters reflect a decided shift in tone from earlier reviews. An annual report presented to the court last October was "diplomatic" and was more supportive of positive steps taken by the division than it was critical, said John O'Toole, executive director of National Center for Youth Law, which sued DCFS in 1994.
"The tone and content of (the Feb. 25) letter is dramatically different," O'Toole said. "Performance is not improving. It's clear from a review of everything that the system continues to be in crisis."
But a performance report presented to legislators in February shows that DCFS has made statistical improvements.
A record number of adoptions were finalized in fiscal year 2000, and the timetable for adoption has been reduced from about a year to just over eight months. Children are also staying in foster care for shorter periods of time and getting improved services such as medical care when taken into custody, the report notes.
"I would disagree with any statement that says we haven't made any improvements," Department of Human Services Executive Director Robin Arnold-Williams said of Vincent's letter. " In the national comparisons, we look pretty good. That doesn't mean we don't have a ways to go, but (the letter) is certainly not gloom and doom."
It may have been been the nail in the coffin of Patterson's career as director of DCFS. In an e-mail announcement to staff, Arnold-Williams said a different set of skills were needed in order to implement the remaining pieces of the Milestone Plan.
"If anything, it highlights the reason the decision was made," said Arnold-Williams, who stressed that Patterson had a great vision for DCFS. "It speaks to what we heard from (the governor's) transition team and stakeholders."
Patterson said he believes it is too early in the process to say that DCFS has failed. Data from two rural regions show the system exceeding exit-level criteria and a review of the Cottonwood office of the Salt Lake are also shows improvements, he said.
"This isn't the first letter we've had like this, but do you think the system really changed that much from October to February? These (changes) are a long process," Patterson said. "Paul Vincent has a difficult role. Not only is he the court-ordered monitor, but we've also contracted with him to do the training. He's constantly fielding calls from (people) outside DCFS who think things are not happening quickly, and his skill as a monitor may depend on our performance."
In Patterson's absence, DCFS interim director Richard Anderson will try to move the division toward a more favorable review from Vincent.
O'Toole, who called Patterson a "great disappointment," believes Utah is now staring in the face of a great opportunity to change its child-welfare system.
"Utah, unlike other places, has a relatively small caseload and a blueprint in place (the Milestone Plan)," he said. "They have good resources, they have the Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group. If any place in the country has the opportunity to really change, it's Utah."