“It is time that someone gives voice to the thousands of children in foster care who have no say about where they live, where their siblings go, or what happens in their future,” Kris Jacober, president of the Arizona Association for Foster and Adoptive Parents, said in a statement accompanying the suit.
“Children are still sleeping in (state agency) offices because there is nowhere else for them,” she said. “They’re not receiving timely or needed mental health services. The children in this lawsuit represent thousands with similar stories. The state can’t simply bring them into custody and provide for them on the fly.”
The suit, filed on behalf of 10 children currently in the Arizona foster-care system, names the directors of the state departments of Health Services and Child Safety and alleges the state:
–Neglects its duty to provide adequate health care for children in state custody.
–Has a severe shortage of foster homes.
–Fails to promptly investigate reports of neglect and abuse involving children in foster care.
–Hampers efforts to maintain family relationships by separating siblings in foster care and not providing required parental visits.
Although the state is aware of these conditions, many of which the suit documents using the state’s own data, it has not corrected them, the lawsuit says.
Because of that, the lawsuit says, Arizona’s actions show “a policy, pattern, custom and/or practice that shocks the conscience, is outside the exercise of any professional judgment, and amounts to deliberate indifference to the constitutionally-protected rights and liberty and privacy interests” of the children named in the suit, as well as all children under state care.
Gov. Doug Ducey is reviewing the case and offered little comment. “Governor Ducey takes the safety and well-being of foster care children extremely seriously,” his office said in a statement. “They are among the most vulnerable in our state and the governor believes it is imperative that the government protect them.”
The suit seeks a series of remedies, ranging from an increase in foster homes to timely medical care. The suit uses pseudonyms for the 10 child plaintiffs, who range in age from 3 to 14. It seeks class action by the court on behalf of all children in state foster care. As of September, there were 16,990 children in state custody, according to the latest data from the Department of Child Safety.
The Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, the local law firm of Coppersmith, Brockelman LPC and the New York-based Children’s Rights organization are handling the case. Children’s Rights filed a similar complaint last month in South Carolina and a nearly 4-year-old suit alleging neglect of Texas children in foster care is proceeding.
The filing comes seven months after the state created a stand-alone child-welfare agency in the wake of the discovery of nearly 6,600 reports of child abuse and neglect that went without investigations over nearly four years.
But that highly publicized effort, which resulted in the creation of the Department of Child Safety, didn’t address the issues that plague foster care, said William Kapell, lead attorney with Children’s Rights, an advocacy organization.
In fact, despite all of the attention on child welfare over the last year, not much has changed, said Anne Ronan, an attorney with the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest.
“It created a more expensive investigative unit,” she said.
ARIZONA FOSTER CARE RATES
The number of children in Arizona’s foster care system has steadily risen since 2002.
March 2011Sept 2011March 2012Sept 2012March 2013Sept 2013March 2014Sept 201405,00010,00015,000
Department of Child Safety
Ginger Rough/The Republic
March 2011: 10,707 September 2011: 11,535 March 2012: 12,453 September 2012: 14,111 March 2013: 14,314 September 2013: 15,037 March 2014: 15,751 September 2014: 16,990
And if that investigative effort results in more children being removed from their homes, she said, the state needs to be prepared to cover the cost of each child’s education, health care and mental-health treatment.
Those responsibilities have been sorely neglected, the lawsuit points out, as it documents travails that the 10 children have endured.
For example, one of the children, identified only as Charles P., had been in eight schools over a year-and-a-half.
Beth K., the lead plaintiff in the case, had complained of a toothache for months while living in a group home, but got no dental care during the nearly two-year period. During that time frame, the state also failed to get her eyeglasses and did not notice that she walked with a limp, so she didn’t get orthopedic shoes that would correct her walk.
The lawsuit also says the state has hindered efforts to keep families together, and refers to the case of four siblings, two girls and two boys, ages 3 to 7, who were placed in state custody a year ago. They were initially placed with a relative 2 1/2 hours away from the family’s home, a distance that apparently hampered the ability of state caseworkers to do “urgent responses” on their cases.
Over the last year, the four, identified only as the “C-B siblings,” were split into two separate foster homes, reunited for two weeks with their father before he returned them to state custody, sent to three different foster homes, and were denied the therapy the state Department of Child Safety determined they needed.
In July, a Juvenile Court found the agency’s action, or lack thereof, “appalling,” noting DCS failed to follow through on therapy sessions, and didn’t back up its promise to the father that it would help him with transportation to get the children to therapy.
The case illustrates the lapses by the state in meeting its goal of maintaining family bonds, the suit says. The suit also says DCS has not coordinated visits between children in foster care and their parents, nor has it always done monthly visits with biological parents to gauge whether family reunification is possible.
And while the state was trying to fix the former Child Protective Services, it did not keep up with similar complaints on foster care: Nearly three-quarters of foster care-related reports had not been looked at and resolved in the 60-day time frame required by law, the suit says.