Anatomy of a Reform Effort

Far from being limited to larger urban areas, increases in removals of children are everywhere to be found. Just as needless removals of children skyrocketed in New York City after the reports of Elisa Izquierdo made the headlines, removals skyrocketed in Utah after the National Center for Youth Law sued the state over its treatment of children in foster care. "We saw a dramatic increase" in removals, said Suzanne Timmerman of the Division of Child and Family Services. "Workers are afraid of making a mistake and would rather err on the side of caution." Said Robin Arnold-Williams, director of the Department of Human Services: "We do believe the lawsuit has heightened awareness that if it's a really difficult judgment call, we need to err on the side of protection of the child, which means removal" (Collins, 1996).

The 1993 class action, David C. v. Leavitt, was filed on behalf of about 1,400 children in foster care and another 10,000 alleged to have been abused and neglected. The action charged that the state failed to provide adequately trained caseworkers, medical treatment, and education to children in its care and that it used unlicensed foster homes and homes that did not meet federal standards. It also alleged that children bounce around in the system and languish in foster care. A subsequent legislative audit largely confirmed the allegations (Collins, 1994). As a result, the Utah legislature approved what the Governor called a "SWAT Team approach" to handling the system wide deficiencies in its foster care and child protective services programs (Deseret News, 1994). By 1995 it had established "Judicial M*A*S*H units," courtrooms with temporary judges to handle the backlog of children waiting for rulings on their cases (Funk, 1995).

Some interesting twists took place as the case progressed. June of 1997 saw the resignation of Sherianne Cotterell, a member of a three-member monitoring panel established to oversee the state's compliance with the lawsuit settlement which had been reached in 1994. Her role in writing reports critical of agency compliance and in pursuing information about an audit being kept secret in the Moab child protective services office led to death threats against her (Hayes, 1997). Shortly thereafter, a five-year-veteran caseworker would tell reporters the department is "dysfunctional," charging that cases were not being addressed as required by policy, or in accordance with the settlement. Agency officials countered with a report claiming that Utah's child welfare system was one of the top three in the nation (Associated Press, 1997a).

November of 1997 saw foster parents telling reporters that when they first got their foster care license they were prepared for troubled teens, but not for the bureaucrats in Utah's child protective services system. After five frustrating years of dealing with the department, one couple was planning to let the license lapse when their last foster child leaves. "The system is so corrupt, I fear for my children or any reasonable person's children," James Sebaske explained. Several other foster parents recounted times DCFS caseworkers failed to make regular visits to see their foster children, also citing instances in which caseworkers pulled children from their homes without providing a reason. If they complain, the foster parents said, child assignments may suddenly cease, or they find that their licenses are under review (Associated Press, 1997b).

By August of 1998, the fifth and final audit of Utah's child welfare system was released with the determination that little had changed over the course of the years. After auditing 1,767 cases, the independent monitoring panel charged with overseeing the state's compliance with the court settlement found that the state continues to be out of compliance on "crucial" case actions 76% of the time (Byram, 1998). The settlement is now a part of history, having expired in August of 1998. U.S. District Judge Tena Campbell refused to extend it, saying that it had "completely failed" (Deseret News, 1998).

 

 
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