After five years and more than $100 million, Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt and the State Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS) couldn’t find it within their power to live up to promises to protect children under state care.
After all that time and money, how could giving the state two more years to abide by a legal agreement make any difference? That seemed to be the foremost question U.S. District Judge Tena Campbell tried to grapple with following a July 20 hearing. It also seemed to be the basis for her Aug. 5 decision not to extend the settlement agreement between the state and the National Center for Youth Law (NCYL).
Since 1991, NCYL had been working to exact change in Utah’s DCFS. But rather than working with the San Francisco-based legal representatives to create needed changes for Utah’s most vulnerable children, state leaders took a fight the outsider stance, causing NCYL to file suit in Feb. 1993.
By May 1993, the state had entered into a settlement agreement with NCYL that provided a three-person monitoring panel to review compliance and file quarterly reports with the court. Since then, at least 47 children under the care of DCFS have died.
From the start, the panel was impeded by the governor’s personal friend and appointee, Larry Lunt, who filed his own minority reports, which contained statements questionable in accuracy as well as portions apparently taken verbatim from a State Department of Human Services report.
With Lunt’s obstruction and few resources provided by the state, the other two panel members were only able to produce three reports, all finding DCFS in violation of the court agreement.
Later, two new panel members, together with one original member, Pamela Atkinson, produced two more reports confirming the findings of pervious reports. The latest one was released just one day after Judge Campbell ruled against extending the settlement agreement, which will expire Aug. 20.
The report now seems moot in spite of lip service from the governor to continued improvement in the care of children. As of Aug. 20, there will no longer be a watchdog panel, while DCFS Director Ken Patterson begins his second year of minimize the problems philosophy.
Compared to other child welfare systems in the country, Utah has one of the lowest caseloads, while harboring agency problems on a par with much larger systems having 10 or 20 times the number of children in foster care, such as New York, Illinois, Florida and Pennsylvania.
Utah’s DCFS continues to operate far out of compliance with the mandates of federal law for which it receives federal dollars. The agency so far has demonstrated no fervor or sense of immediacy in addressing the problems that plaque its child welfare service.
After the settlement agreement expires later this month, the NCYL will have several options, not the least of which would be filing another suit against the state. NCYL attorney Martha Matthews says that before such a step is taken, it would be important to explore some type of alternative. If they want to negotiate, we’ll negotiate.
But negotiation wasn’t a hallmark of this long saga before litigation. And the animosity has only grown. Negotiation doesn’t look promising, despite continued suffering and death for Utah’s less fortunate children.