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Foundation's failure would set back foster care two decades, Leavitt cautions lawmakers

SALT LAKE CITY — The future of the Utah Foster Care Foundation may hinge on a vote of a legislative appropriations committee, former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt says.

On Friday, the Utah Legislature's Social Services Appropriations Subcommittee is expected to vote on its list of funding priorities to be submitted to the Executive Appropriations Committee, made up of legislative leaders who prepare the final budget voted on by the House and Senate.

Leavitt cautions that failure of the foundation could set back foster care in Utah two decades.

The foundation could shutter on June 30 unless it receives a contract adequate to meet its costs, Leavitt told members of the Social Services Appropriations Subcommittee earlier this week. The foundation's state funding has been flat since 2004, he said.

"This isn't a nonprofit entity hoping to get business from the state. It is the state meeting its obligation," he said.

Leavitt offered for what many committee members was a history lesson about a class-action lawsuit filed in 1993 by the National Center for Youth Law of Oakland, California, alleging Utah's child-welfare system violated federal law and children's constitutional rights.

The lawsuit, David C. vs. Leavitt, spanned 14 years and included federal court oversight of Utah's child welfare system.

Seventeen children, ages 3 to 17, represented the plaintiff class in the lawsuit. According to the filings, David C., then 3 years old, and his two brothers were placed in foster care because of severe physical and sexual abuse. One of his brothers died from abuse he received while in foster care. David was abused as well. Despite repeated requests by his new foster home for psychological counseling for David, the boy did not receive therapy and was severely emotionally disturbed.

"While the contentious nature of the lawsuit was unnecessary and counterproductive in many ways, it was impossible to defend the state's neglect of its basic responsibility to protect abused children," Leavitt said.

Under a settlement agreement and more than a decade of federal court oversight, Utah's child welfare system "went from being highly inadequate in its protection of abused children to one that is admired," Leavitt said.

The creation of the nonprofit Utah Foster Care Foundation, which recruits, trains and supports foster families, played a key role in the reforms, Leavitt said. The organization received its first contract from the state in 1998, and its funding has been flat since 2004 while "demands on the system have markedly increased," he said.

The foundation, which also conducts private fundraising, has been operating at a deficit in recent years, he said.

The nonprofit organization is asking lawmakers for an additional $400,000 appropriation. It now receives $2.7 million a year under its contract with the Division of Child and Family Services, according to director Brent Platt.

Kelly Peterson, CEO of the Utah Foster Care Foundation, said the increase is needed to address rising operational costs such as office space and medical insurance for employees.

The foundation board has subsidized those costs from reserves.

"At the end of this year, that will be around $800,000. We can't do it any more because we're running out of reserves," Peterson said Wednesday.

The organization has pared back costs where it can, no longer extending insurance coverage to the adult children of its employees, she said.

The foundation has a performance-based contract to recruit and train 685 foster families each year. It has met that expectation every year and has launched a number of initiatives intended to attract a more diverse group of foster parents so children can be placed with families that share their cultural backgrounds, she said.

Many other states and countries want to replicate the program because of its success, Peterson said.

"We really do have something here we don't want to lose," she said.

Platt said the foundation "is a great organization. I think Utah has come a long way in 15 years."

For this budget cycle, the foundation brought its financial concerns to the Department of Human Services too late to include it in its budget request, Platt said. Even if it had, the department has many competing interests and the foundation's request may not have risen as a priority, he said.

"To me, it's critical that foster parents get a raise. If we want to retain foster parents, it's important they get a little more money," Platt said.

Platt said Utah's child welfare system is unique in that has a three-pronged approach, a separate state agency that handles foster care licensing, a foundation that recruits and trains families and DCFS, which pairs them with children in care and oversees their progress.

Peterson said the approach works well and the foundation is an integral part of the process.

"The bottom line is, if we close, it's going to hurt children in Utah. It's going to really hurt them. It will hurt DCFS staff because they're going to have to take on responsibilities they don't have time to do, and they're not trained and skilled to do it. They try their hardest, but I remember back when I was a caseworker, recruiting families was the last thing I had time for. I was too busy doing investigations with the police officers and bringing the kids into custody. I didn't have time to recruit families," she said.

While the lawsuit, years of federal court oversight and comprehensive reforms were challenging, Platt said Utah's child welfare system is profoundly different from two decades ago.

"We have a very healthy system. It's a very transparent system. There's lots of community involvement and engagement, which is very different than before," he said.

As for the Legislature's funding decision and impact on the foundation and the division, Platt said, "We'll have to wait and see."

If the foundation board decides to shut down the organization, DCFS stands ready to assume recruitment and training of foster parents, Platt said. "We're willing and able to take over the responsibility."

Leavitt, who served as secretary of Health and Human Services after nearly three terms as Utah's governor, said his federal service gave him a view of other states' child welfare systems.

The foster care foundation, which is able to blend the resources of faith communities, the private sector and government funding, plays a pivotal role, Leavitt said.

The takeaway lesson from the David C. lawsuit and the reforms that followed is "don't neglect adequate support of child protective services," Leavitt said.

"Not only is protection of children a highest order moral obligation of state government, but its neglect is a false economy," he said.