Gov. Mike Leavitt's goal of making Utah's child welfare services a model for the nation is a worthy one.
Standing in front of foster parents, child advocates and workers from the Division of Child and Family Services, Leavitt promised last week the commitment to child welfare would be such that it would become a program worthy of emulation. That would be a welcome change from the chaos of the past four years.In 1994 the National Center for Youth Law in San Francisco sued the state for neglecting children in foster care. Since that time a monitoring panel has issued a report detailing the division's progress, or lack thereof.
The state has maintained that the settlement was unfair, forcing it to meet 316 separate and often redundant requirements rather than focus on the primary task at hand - helping children who are abused, neglected or otherwise in need.
The four-year settlement expired earlier this month, and U.S. District Judge Tena Campbell refused to extend it. But it was hardly a victory for anyone - not for the state, not for children's advocates who brought the original lawsuit and, especially, not for the state's needy children.
Fortunately the future looks considerably brighter. 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.
Still, to Leavitt's credit, he acknowledges the division has not come far enough in its efforts to improve.
The main source of the new-found optimism is a comprehensive plan. The plan was written by a judicially created independent monitoring panel and DCFS. The governor claims the plan's "new realistic measures" will guide the division to a point where it's not only adequate in child welfare but superior.
The new plan is a good start but, as with all proposals, the follow-through is critical.
Another thing that's critical is training. Beginning in October, training staff will be available to DCFS offices around the state.
To achieve the kind of progress desired, the DCFS needs the cooperation of the community, advocates and nonprofit organizations.
That, combined with leaders of vision, will indeed lead Utah's child welfare services into a new era.