SUFFER THE CHILDRENWILL A LANDMARK LAWSUIT SPUR CHANGES IN THE STATE'S FOSTER CARE SYSTEM?

In June 1992, three little boys, ages eight, six and four, were taken from their mother, Mrs. M., and handed over to the Jefferson County Department of Social Services. Mrs. M., it was alleged, had allowed all three of her sons to be sexually molested by at least two different men in several incidents.

But instead of landing in a safe place, the boys spent the next two years being shunted around from foster home to foster home, on occasion being split up. And instead of receiving much-needed therapy for the cruelties they had suffered, the boys' counseling was suspended while they became pawns in a jurisdictional dispute between the Jeffco and Denver County social-service agencies.

Since June 1993 the boys have been in four different schools and at least four foster homes. They still don't have a permanent home.

That horror story is the centerpiece of a landmark class-action lawsuit that seeks to overhaul foster care in Colorado. The suit was prompted by an investigation by the New York-based ACLU Children's Rights Project and the San Francisco-based National Center for Youth Law.

Filed last summer in U.S. District Court after several months of negotiations between state officials and children's advocates, the suit charges that Colorado's child welfare system is "in a deepening state of crisis and deterioration." Critics say foster children are routinely neglected and abused by a system that they characterize in the suit as "dangerously underfunded and inadequately managed."

A few weeks after the suit was filed, a settlement agreement was signed by Governor Roy Romer, acting state social services director Karen Beye and representatives of the Colorado Lawyers Committee, which brought the action.

But the agreement, which comes four years after Colorado's child welfare system was targeted by activists, marks only the start of the battle. The proposed settlement, which has to be reviewed by Chief Judge Richard Matsch, would funnel millions of dollars into the state foster care system. State legislators, however, still have to appropriate money to pay for these reforms. And they may not be quick to pour more money into the state Department of Social Services (now known as the Department of Human Services).

Three years ago a Denver Post series pointed out that Colorado's payments to treatment centers for residential care of abused and neglected foster children were much lower than those in practically every other state in the country. The result was that local treatment centers were accepting cases from other states while Colorado's abused children languished in juvenile jails or on waiting lists for treatment centers.

Pressure from children's advocates apparently has helped ease money problems for foster care. The state's child welfare budget for 1993-94--including federal, state and county funds--was $76 million; it's scheduled to rise by nearly 41 percent, to $107 million, in 1994-95.

The settlement agreement calls for even more money to be pumped into child welfare. However, even foster care reformers acknowledge that the proposed settlement is no panacea.

"There's a lot of legislation enacted by states that is not effective," says Bill Grimm, staff attorney with the National Center for Youth Law. "The legislation may, on paper, appear to be good; the thing is implementing it."

Grimm acknowledges that the center's aggressive court tactics don't always pay off. The center has four similar legal actions against Utah, Maryland, California and Arkansas under its belt. Maryland had to extend its settlement in order to comply, Grimm says, while Arkansas breached its agreement outright. The ACLU hasn't fared much better. It has brought ten major lawsuits against Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Kansas, Kansas City, Louisiana, Louisville, Milwaukee, New Mexico, New York City and Philadelphia. Of those ten, the District of Columbia, Kansas City, New Mexico and New York City also have been slapped with contempt motions for breach of agreement.

"The results are mixed, but there is no perfect child-care system in the country," Grimm says. "Oftentimes it's done to increase funding for child welfare agencies." In defense of litigation as a reform measure, Grimm adds that "it's hard to say how much worse off social services would have been if not for litigation."

The lawsuit against Colorado makes the same type of charges aimed at other states. According to the Colorado suit, "Children taken into state custody, ostensibly for their own protection, instead suffer further abuse and neglect in out-of-home care at a rate that is greater than the rate of abuse and neglect of children in the general population."

The suit contends that since 1986, the number of child-abuse and -neglect reports have increased by 36 percent, and the number of confirmed victims has increased by at least 44 percent. During this same time, on average, the total number of fulltime-equivalent county staff responsible for responding to this need has decreased.

According to the advocates, Colorado's woes include a lack of caseworkers and insufficient caseworker training, inadequate investigations and no planning for permanent placement of foster children. While the settlement proposes programs and reforms to address all these issues, the state was sued for violating existing federal and state laws and for not following through with its own regulations and policies.

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