A legislative audit blames fiscal mismanagement, confusing contracts and poor communication for the troubled state of the Division of Child and Family Services and its adoption-subsidy program.

Last spring, a $1.4 million budget shortfall forced DCFS to cut subsidies to special-needs families who depended on that support to get care for their seriously mentally ill children. The cuts sent many children into a downward spiral that sparked tearful public testimonies and eventually the audit itself.

But in spite of that, 60 percent of the 1,124 families that responded to an audit survey said they had a "good" or "very good" adoption experience through DCFS.

At the Capitol on Thursday, division director Ken Patterson said those numbers are proof that the system can — and does — work.

"We were nervous about the survey because we knew it was going out at what was perhaps our darkest hour, " he said. "We think this is a pretty good response for us."

Administrative changes within the past nine months — which include staff changes, three restructured division offices, contract reviews of subsidy payments and reductions in the number of high-cost residential treatment placements — have already begun to pay off for the division, he said.

There is better fiscal control, more accountability and the needs of most families are being met through medical cards, he said.

Adoptive parent Kristi Hutchings, who has two special-needs kids, doesn't agree.

"I don't want adoption to get a bad name," the South Jordan mother said. "But tight fiscal controls have left many families without support."

Subsidies for Hutchings' two sons have never been restored despite a mandate from Gov. Mike Leavitt that the division make good on all its contracts. Her oldest son, who has sometimes beaten her until she was bruised and at age 3 attempted to sexually abuse family members and a neighbor, has multiple serious mental-illness problems and needs treatment for attention deficit disorders, reactive attachment disorder and anger management, she said. Many of those services are not covered by the medical card, and the Hutchings family has covered the costs itself, she said.

"I love my children, but we would not have adopted them were it not for the promise of financial support to deal with those problems," she said.

The Hutchings family is one of four that have filed a letter of intent to sue the division if problems are not resolved.

The audit paints a picture of a department in disarray.

"Several times in the past five years, the spending for adoption assistance has exceeded the budgeted amounts, requiring funding transfers and supplemental appropriations," the audit states.

And "we found that some of the (social workers) have a hard time working within a budget. They feel their job is to help families and children get the assistance they need but somebody else's job to worry about paying for that assistance," audit supervisor James Behunin said.

Workers said they were unclear about department policies. Adoption contract language was confusing. Department records were inconsistent and difficult to reconcile.

"While most parents report they are satisfied, many are justifiably frustrated," the audit states. "On the other hand, we found little evidence to support allegations that division staff intentionally misled adoptive parents or unfairly pressured them to adopt."

No surprise, said Hutchings, who said she was given only a half-hour to review case files on the boys she adopted and then only three days to decide if she would finalize the adoption of her older son.

"If I were blackmailing someone, I hope I would be smart enough not to leave a paper trail," she told legislators.

Patterson said he believes the 1994 David C. lawsuit filed against Utah's child-welfare system left many staff with a "compliance" mentality that drove them to worry more about meeting the letter of the law and less about the needs of the family.

But Patterson and Hutchings agree with an audit recommendation that calls for the division to develop better post-adoption services for families. Both also said that they support legislation proposed by Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, and Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake, that would clarify the commitment between the state and adoptive families and review the ways in which both foster and adoptive children access mental-health services.

E-MAIL: dobner@desnews.com