Gov. Mike Leavitt says Utah child welfare services are entering a new era, one of public accountability and improved services to children.

Standing before foster parents, child advocates and workers from the Division of Child and Family Services on Tuesday, Leavitt promised that commitment to child welfare would increase until Utah becomes a model for the nation.The guiding document will be a comprehensive plan, Leavitt said. Released last week, the plan was written by a judicially created independent monitoring panel and DCFS. The document was ordered last year by a federal court judge overseeing the settlement of a class-action lawsuit against DCFS for neglecting children in foster care.

Next month, U.S. District Court Judge Tena Campbell will consider a request by the National Center for Youth Law, which sued the state in 1993, to have the court oversee the state's implementation of the plan.

State officials have long said the system needs its autonomy and Utah is ready to be solely responsible for its children. Leavitt said the plan's "new, realistic measures" will guide the division to a point where it's not only adequate in child welfare but superior.

Despite his optimism for the future, Leavitt noted the division had not come far enough in its efforts to improve.

"I believe our system is getting better. It's not perfect," Leavitt said. "If you want to have a system that acts with maturity you have to give it a chance to mature. . . . We're making progress and it will be demonstrated as time goes on."

Part of those improvements include expanding reporting services for those in the community who suspect a child is being abused. The Salt Lake County child protection hotline will extend its hours to 7 a.m. to midnight on Oct. 5. On Oct. 19, a physicians' hotline will begin taking calls from doctors in the Salt Lake area. That hotline will allow doctors to reach caseworkers if they suspect abuse.

Leavitt stressed the importance of training and said, to help that effort, training staff would be located in DCFS offices around the state, also beginning in October.

The division will also begin efforts to apply for accreditation as a public child welfare agency.

But the task of making a model system is bigger than one area of state government. He said DCFS needs the cooperation of the community, advocates and nonprofits.

But Scott Clark, chairman of the board of the Division of Child and Family Services, told Leavitt that many in the community feel the state is not listening. He questioned what Leavitt and DCFS would do to help re-establish trust.

Since the lawsuit was filed, the state has doubled the number of juvenile judges and created a legislative oversight panel, a consumer hearing panel, statewide foster care citizen review boards and an ombudsman. Those oversight mechanisms are now required by state statute.