SALT LAKE CITY — Fewer Utah children are entering the state foster care system, which state auditors and child welfare officials say is a positive trend.

The downward trend is due to concerted efforts by the Division of Child and Family Services to provide or refer families to community services so children can remain with their families, says division director Brent Platt.

As the audit put it, "more children are left in their homes with no apparent increase in negative effect."

The performance audit of Utah's Child Welfare System was presented Thursday by state legislative auditors to the Social Services Appropriations Subcommittee, which accepted the audit with little comment from committee members.

The audit noted that Utah's evolving child welfare policies and practices acknowledge the trauma involved in removing a child from their home, as well as the cost of foster care placements.

For fiscal year 2012, 4,364 new children were served by DCFS, with 2,360 receiving in-home services and 2,004 placed in foster care.

Even as referrals have increased, the number and percentage of children in state supervision and/or custody has fallen since 2006.

Foster care removals "continue to be used as DCFS's treatment of last resort," the report said.

Despite an increase in the state's population, the numbers of children served by DCFS custody fell from 5,454 in 2006 to 4,364 in fiscal year 2012.

In an interview following the committee meeting, Platt said the decrease in numbers served by the agency was partly due to a change in the definition of abuse, which previously included children who might have heard or witnessed incidents of domestic violence.

It is also due to allowing families, when child safety and welfare permits, to work out their own problems. Fewer children are entering DCFS custody, too, because of a greater reliance on placing children with other family members when appropriate.

Platt said another reason for the decrease is the division's shift to a single intake office, "which helps us keep our practices consistent statewide."

DCFS is statutorily required to investigate referrals of potential abuse and neglect, and determine which require intervention. The agency receives some 37,000 referrals a year, affecting about 4 percent of the state's 900,000 children from newborn to age 18.

According to the report, the agency conducted more than 24,500 investigations in 2012. Among those, abuse or neglect was substantiated in 9,359 instances. Among those children, new in-home and foster care services were provided to 30 percent of the children.

The remaining cases identified minor levels of abuse or neglect. There was no further DCFS involvement in the cases. Most were referred to community resources.

"Even though these children did not receive DCFS services, DCFS records show they did not appear to have any greater likelihood of future system improvement," the audit stated.

Among children who are removed from their homes, 65 percent who exit foster care are returned to their families or placed with relatives. Nineteen percent are adopted by non-relatives, and another 16 percent leave the system for other reasons such as aging out of the system at 18.

While the audit was largely positive, it did point out challenges among children, typically older kids who linger in the state's foster care system.

Thirty-five percent of foster children in long-term placements — those in the system two years or more — live in licensed group homes or institutions. DCFS contracts with some 40 group homes statewide, Platt said.

Youth in long-term foster care use 43 percent of DCFS's out-of-home budget but make up 23 percent of the state's foster care population. In 2012, the division spent nearly $10.2 million on this population alone.

While Platt says the division prefers to place children in home-like settings, some children in DCFS custody have severe behavioral issues, have been adjudicated as sex offenders or have run away from foster homes. Few foster families will open their homes to them.

But he acknowledges that the longer children are in state custody, it is less likely they will find permanent homes through adoption.

"These youth, compared to their non-foster care peers, are less likely to finish high school and become employed. They are also more likely to have mental health problems, be involved in crime, go to jail, become homeless, live in poverty and rely on public assistance," the audit said.

The audit also found that nearly half of the children in state custody who were legally free for adoption were not placed on the Utah Adoption Exchange, despite a DCFS policy that requires caseworkers to do so.

According to the audit, 127 of 261 children eligible for adoption were not posted on the Adoption Exchange.

DCFS regional directors indicated that some caseworkers are not following this policy because it is time intensive, and caseworkers are already overburdened by other tasks.

In his written response to the audit, Platt said DCFS will put in place a system to ensure all eligible foster children are placed on the Adoption Exchange.

Part of the problem, he said, is that DCFS has lacked the resources to include all children on the exchange. When DCFS places children on the exchange and community members indicate their interest in adoption, caseworkers need to thoroughly vet the applications. Ten to 12 prospective adoptive parents may apply to adopt each child.

Platt said he is also concerned whether the nonprofit Adoption Exchange, which serves Utah and seven other states, has the "staffing and manpower to manage that increase."

However, Platt pledged to work with the Adoption Exchange to find a means to address the issue within the division. The Utah Adoption Exchange did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.

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