At the risk of sounding repetitive, it's time for the state's Division of Child Welfare Services to show substantial progress in how it is complying with a court order to improve.

We have said the same thing virtually every year since the settlement was signed in 1994, yet every year a monitoring panel issues a new report saying the division is falling far short. The latest report, released late last week, shows the state failed to comply in 54 percent of the 1,484 cases studied.What is going on here? The answer, in part, may be a lack of agreement over which standards truly are important. Division officials claim the 316 separate requirements they must meet are repetitive and tedious and divert the attention of child-welfare workers from the most important thing, which is taking care of the children.

They also claim to have made much more progress lately. The audit covers foster care cases during the first half of 1997. Since then, the state has hired Ken Patterson as the division's new director. Because of this, another audit has been ordered, covering the first three months of this year.

But the monitoring panel itself has had its problems. Two years ago, disagreements over the division's progress led to two separate reports. And the report issued this week appears to contain contradictions. After finding many problems with the 1,484 cases it studied, the audit then looked at 48 cases in exhaustive detail. There, the division fared much better.

All of this will come to a head in August when the court settlement expires. At that point, a U.S. District Court judge has to decide whether to extend the agreement or rule that the state has satisfied its terms. Given the dire results of this latest audit, the judge is unlikely to dismiss the case. But given the disagreements that have characterized the four years of struggle, perhaps the judge ought to let the state argue the case for a different set of requirements.

Utahns have a right to wonder why so little has changed in audits conducted since the National Center for Youth Law in San Francisco sued the state for neglecting children in foster care. It isn't for lack of money. The division's budget has increased from $48 million to $101 million, and the number of caseworkers has increased by nearly 200.

As we said last year, the situation would be bad enough if the division's responsibilities were for something like roads or parks. But the child-welfare agency deals with children, and when "areas of compliance" are inadequate, it means children's needs are not being met. Perhaps it means children are being abused or neglected. Perhaps some will die from this neglect. Needless to say, this is not acceptable.

Utahns need to know whether this important government responsibility is being handled properly and whether the state truly is making progress. We hope that can be demonstrated definitively before the settlement expires in August.