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DCFS points to progress, but group asks ‘where?’

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The Division of Child and Family Services says the latest review of its court-ordered overhaul of Utah's child protection system shows it's made substantial progress the past year.

But the advocacy group that first sued the state says the agency is still evading rather than fixing the problems.

Gains have been made, a court-appointed compliance monitor said Monday in his second annual performance report on DCFS to the U.S. District Court. However, progress in the three most important parts of the 93-step compliance plan falls short, the report states, which likely means the division will remain under court oversight for the foreseeable future.

Significant problems remain, said Paul Vincent of The Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group. "But the division has committed itself to ambitious standards in the design of the plan, and if these standards are achieved, Utah will have provided its citizens a model child welfare system."

That could happen one day, but for now the report "shows clearly" that DCFS is "putting children at great risk and failing to meet minimum standards of improvement in services," said Darryl Hamm, staff attorney with the National Center for Youth Law in Oakland, Calif., which sued the division in February 1993 claiming widespread deficiencies in protection, care and services for children in state foster care.

"We are truly disappointed but not overly surprised at the lack of progress that Utah has made," Hamm said. "During the past seven years, while DCFS was supposed to be focusing on implementing the reforms they agreed to in the 1994 settlement, the state has instead wasted considerable amounts of time and resources fighting unsuccessfully against this agreement in court."

DCFS director Richard Anderson, who has been the agency's top administrator since March, said overall the report shows that children are safer, families' needs are better-met and caseworker training has improved.

The changes expected in the plan are "large-scale," Anderson said. "Part of this process is allowing adequate time for those changes and providing necessary funding to achieve our goals," he said, adding that the division actually has 115 fewer staff members now than in 1999, when the current version of the overhaul plan was agreed to.

That sounds like more of an excuse than a reason to the law center, which notes that just this past November, DCFS filed its third motion to have the agreement dismissed.

In this latest one, filed seven years after it voluntarily consented to reform its child welfare system, DCFS asserts that it is immune from federal oversight, Hamm said.

"Until the distraction of endless motions and appeals ceases, DCFS will be unable to dedicate its full energy and focus to effective reform," he said.

Taxpayers have paid a lot for the reform: $52.8 million or a 108 percent increase in funding, from $48.9 million in 1994 to $101.7 million in 1997, to implement the changes ordered under the plan.

The motions filed by the state attorney general and not the division are about legal minutiae and have nothing to do with repairing the system and meeting state child welfare expectations, Anderson said. "We want to achieve them and we will."

The law center maintains the division is ultimately attempting to evade its responsibility, otherwise it would not have been ordered twice to comply with the agreement it voluntarily signed in 1994 and would stop filing motions to have court monitoring dismissed.

In the report released Monday, Vincent said the design and delivery of a practice model to train division staff, community partners and foster parents due in November 2000 isn't finished.

A revision of all agency policy needing changes to conform to the current plan and its practice model due two years ago this February isn't done.

The development of a better way to use money to tailor services and interventions unique to the individual child and the family that was due no later than Oct. 1, 1999, hasn't been completed. The division has essentially started over on that part of it, Vincent said.

Utah has extremely high standards for its child welfare system, Anderson said. "The court monitor has told us that many times. They are so ambitious that no state in the nation has committed to such a detailed plan. No one even knows if the goals are achievable."

Anderson said by this past September, DCFS had completed 76 percent of the tasks. A new training system has been developed and the agency has completed about 85 percent of the training, with the remainder fully implemented within the next two months. Part of the problem is that the plan holds DCFS responsible for the performance of all the agencies in the child welfare system, Anderson said, noting that mental health, substance abuse, health work programs, education are all part of the review.

"If one service doesn't work, the division receives a lower grade, " Anderson said. "Child welfare is not an agency, it is a system of care."

An initial settlement agreement to overhaul the state's child welfare system was reached in May 1994 after the law center filed suit in February 1993. A monitoring group assigned then issued three reports in 1995 and 1996 stating that the treatment of children was actually declining.

So the law center filed a motion in 1996 to enforce the consent decree, and in March 1997, DCFS was found to be in noncompliance with the decree.

A second plan was formulated in August 1998. But the monitoring panel issued another report in April 1998 finding that DCFS again was complying fully with the terms of the settlement agreement. The law center filed a motion in May 1998 seeking to extend the term of the consent decree. In August 1998, the district court found that it had the power to modify the consent decree, including the four-year term of the settlement agreement due to the unforeseen circumstance of DCFS' "severe lack of compliance."

About a month later, the court-ordered DCFS to comply with the plan, which it agreed to do with the assistance of Vincent and The Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group in May 1999.

In October 1999, the court modifed the consent decree and ordered DCFS to comply with it while retaining jurisdiction to oversee its implementation.

DCFS immediately appealed the district court's Oct. 19 order to the 10th Circuit, arguing the court exceeded it authority in changing the terms of the original consent decree.

Then DCFS appealed its decision and filed a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court, raising the same arguments it had brought in cirucit court. The Supreme Court denied the petition without comment.

This past November, a month after the Supreme Court rejeced its petition, DCFS filed a pending motion to dismiss with district court saying it is essentially immune as a state child welfare agency from any federal lawsuit alleging violations of federal law.

E-mail: jthalman@desnews.com