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A boon to child welfare

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There has to be a better way to run a state agency for 14 years than through oversight by a federal court. But it's difficult to argue with the remarkable transformation that the state Division of Child and Family Services has undergone since the National Center for Youth Law sued the state of Utah over its child welfare practices. The class-action lawsuit, filed in 1993, was named for David C., one of three brothers placed in state custody in 1988. Nine months after their placement in foster care, David C.'s brother was killed in the boys' foster home.

The lawsuit spurred needed changes in policy and practices. It forced the Utah Legislature, finally, to appropriate sufficient resources to the agency. A 1994 consent decree resulted in intense oversight by the court and involvement by members of the community, which continues to this day. Earlier this week, attorneys for the state and NCYL said they have reached an agreement that will end the lawsuit. U.S. District Judge Tena Campbell, who has overseen the case nearly its entire existence, has described the move as "a big deal."

It is a big deal. It's critical that the state remain firmly committed to these improvements in terms of regular appropriations and adherence to an operating model that some national observers say is among the best in the nation. DCFS officials say the agency is committed to sustaining its efforts to date. Also, it's a big deal because the agency is on track to control its own destiny.

Meeting these milestones has required a phenomenal, sustained effort from front-line case workers to top administrators. Their work has been literally picked over with a fine-toothed comb. Part of the oversight process has included reviewers from other states and Utah agencies randomly selecting cases and interviewing everyone involved — parents, children, therapists, physicians, teachers, extended family, foster parents, attorneys and others. Imagine if all departments of state government were subject to such intense scrutiny.

The oversight will not end immediately. Active monitoring of the agency by an outside group will cease June. 30. The state is scheduled to undergo a final review in October 2008. If the division passes muster, the case will be dismissed Dec. 31, 2008. That day will be a victory for state rights. It also will validate of the labors of so many people in remaking a broken agency into one of the finest in the nation.