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End in sight on suit over child welfare

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Utah officials could soon be out from under the cloud of a 14-year-old lawsuit credited with reforming the state's entire child-welfare system.

An exit agreement for the David C. lawsuit was formally presented to U.S. District Judge Tena Campbell Tuesday morning. The accord marks an important milestone in the lawsuit, said the judge, calling the move "a big deal."

"I'm really pleased, and I think these steps that you've taken are a good thing, primarily for children," Campbell said.

Officials say the lawsuit, which has included court-ordered monitoring for many years, has made a vast difference in Utah's overall child-welfare system.

"It's impacted all of our systems, not just foster care," said Duane Betournay, director of the state's Division of Child and Family Services.

The case began in 1991 when a child advocate contacted the National Center for Youth Law with allegations that Utah's foster youth were being mistreated. In February 1993, the California organization filed a class-action lawsuit bearing the name of a young boy who, along with his two brothers, were taken into DCFS custody. Nine months after placement, the boy's older brother was killed in the boys' foster home.

"David C." is now 21 years old. DCFS officials are unsure whether he still lives in Utah or what his life is like now.

For well over a decade, DCFS has operated under the strict scrutiny of a federal court monitor. In the wake of a May 1994 consent decree between the parties, the agency had to develop a practice model and prove it was meeting milestones under that plan.

Near sweeping reforms of the agency followed, including better health care for children in DCFS care, increased monitoring and follow-up after placement in foster homes, and more community involvement throughout the entire process.

The changes have become part of DCFS' day-to-day operations, Betournay said, and will continue after conclusion of the lawsuit.

"We want people to still be looking at the system and know what the system is up to," he said.

In a Tuesday letter to DCFS employees, Betournay praised the agreement as a "wonderful opportunity to gain control of our destiny." The agency, he pledged, would remain committed to "continuous quality improvement" and "sustaining our efforts to date."

Under the terms of the agreement, the case will be dismissed without prejudice this June. Active court monitoring will end at that time, though DCFS will still have to provide the monitor and the plaintiffs with agency data. In July 2008, the court monitor will analyze the agency's operations and could recommend the case be brought back, if DCFS has fallen behind in its obligations.

If the agency has continued to fulfill its milestone plan, the case will be permanently dismissed in December 2008.

Several members of the Utah Legislature attended the court hearing, as well as child welfare officials and community members who have been involved in the reforms for the past decade. Community advocate Pamela Atkinson, who mediated the 1994 consent decree, recalled the many hours she spent in the federal courtroom negotiating with the parties.

"I just feel wonderful," Atkinson said after the brief hearing.

That community involvement, and the transparency instilled in the system in recent years, helped push forward the new agreement, said Leecia Welch, attorney for the National Center for Youth Law.

"I'm really impressed with how this community is willing to take back control of its system," Welch said. "It is not a system that should operate in isolation."

E-mail: awelling@desnews.com