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Utah Foster Care Lawsuit Permanently Dismissed

32b9097440The Federal District Court in Utah dismissed David C. v. Huntsman on Dec. 30, after a final review to ensure that the state continued to be on track with its transformation of the child welfare system. Improvements to Utah’s system have been so dramatic that it is being cited among child welfare experts as a national model.

Both the state and the National Center for Youth Law, which brought the suit, signed an agreement last May to end the case. The case had been in litigation for almost 15 years.

Since the lawsuit was filed in 1993, Utah has gone from one of the worst systems in the country to one of the best. Recent data show that the state is investigating abuse and neglect more rapidly; case workers visit children monthly; foster children receive timely and appropriate health care services; and children move more quickly to adoption. In addition, caseworkers are better trained and have more manageable caseloads. The state’s healthcare system is considered innovative.

There are several critical factors that led to the improvements in Utah’s system, including:

  • an increase in funding, from $50 million in 1993 to $151 million in 2007,
  • the development and implementation of a blueprint for reform (the Milestone Plan) and over-arching principals of practice (the Practice Model),
  • the hiring and training of hundreds of new caseworkers, and
  • the creation of an office to provide legal representation to all children who enter the child welfare system (the Guardian ad Litem).

The transformation can be seen both in terms of improvements to the system’s infrastructure and services, and in terms of sustained positive outcomes for children and families. For example:

  • An exceptionally high number of children in foster care who are on an adoption track are adopted within two years of entering care (81 percent).1 The median length of stay in foster care for these children is also short: 15.4 months.2
  • The rate of re-entry into care within 12 months for children who had been reunited with their parents has dropped from about 15.2 percent in 2001 to less than 10 percent in 2006.3
  • Approximately 90 percent of home-based children in care are receiving monthly visits from their caseworkers, compared with 78 percent in 2003. More than 80 percent of children have weekly visits with parents and/or siblings, compared with 58 and 45 percent, respectively, in 2003.
  • Ninety percent of children are being interviewed within the time frames required for abuse investigations, and 96 percent of investigations are occurring on time.
  • Each child in the dependency system is assigned a public health nurse whose sole responsibility is to manage their healthcare. The nurse’s job is to make sure that the child gets the care required, manage his or her care, and update medical records.
  • The Guardian ad Litem’s office now represents all children in Utah’s dependency system.

Because court oversight has ended, the agreement includes mechanisms to prevent Utah’s system from falling back into disarray. Some of these mechanisms include a continued level of transparency by DCFS, routine scrutiny by citizen review panels, and state-of-the-art data tracking and review mechanisms.

NCYL sued the state of Utah in 1993 over its child welfare practices, calling for broad reform of the system. The system currently has about 2,300 children in foster care. There are more than 20,000 complaints of child abuse and neglect made in Utah each year.

Children in the case were represented by Leecia Welch and John O’Toole of the National Center for Youth Law, Oakland, CA; Stephen Clark of Jones, Waldo, Holbrook & McDonough, Salt Lake City, Utah; and Gregory Dresser of Morrison & Foerster LLP, San Francisco, CA.

1. Utah Division of Child and Family Services, Quarterly Report – Performance and Outcomes, 1st Quarter FY 2008 at 19 (analyzing April 2006-March 2007 data).

2. Id. at 20.

3. Utah Division of Child and Family Services, Quarterly Report – 2nd Quarter FY 2007 at 13. This percentage remains above the federal standard of 8.6 percent, but the percentage has been steadily decreasing and continues to be a focus.