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SALT LAKE CITY --- The fallout of the 1993 federal lawsuit that challenged Utah's child welfare practices may be a 38 percent increase in children being placed in foster care, a new legislative audit suggests.
"Others believe the David C. vs. Leavitt lawsuit has made DCFS (the Division of Child and Family Services) and court staff risk averse and led them to protect children in foster care more than in-home," according to a performance audit of the Division of Child and Family Services released Tuesday. DCFS has operated under a court-appointed monitor for more than a decade under the lawsuit. Federal oversight ended in 2007.
Over the past decade, foster care placements in Utah have increased by 38 percent while the number of families that receive in-home supports that allow children to stay in their family homes has decreased by 40 percent, the audit by Legislative Auditor General shows.
In-home costs versus Foster Care
|Direct cost of program||$6,929,821||$94,482,806|
|Number of cases (6/30/10)||1,640||2,790|
|<b>Avg. cost per case</b>||<b>$4,226</b>||<b>$33,865</b>|
|Avg. duration in months||4.88||16.46|
|<b>Annualized cost per case</b>||<b>$1,718</b>||<b>$46,452</b>|
House Minority Leader Dave Litvack, D-Salt Lake, said it is a potentially dangerous self-perpetuating cycle when foster care placement is used as an alternative in child welfare cases because community services are insufficient or simply not available. That flies in the face of keeping a child in the home when it is safe to do so, he added.
Growth in the foster care system "reflects the child welfare community's change in practice to take children into custody more frequently and place them in foster care rather than provide in-home services," the audit states. However, funding for in-home services has decreased over the past five years.
The state and the communities need to being willing to invest money in home services, said Palmer DePaulis, executive director of the state Department of Human Services. DePaulis said that while home-services are fully funded by the state's General Fund, Utah is able to turn to a blend of state money and federal dollars to pay for foster care placement.
Overall, however, home services are cheaper in the long run and can help the state resist relying on an "overused" foster care system, Stahla said.
A growing number of children served in foster care is problematic because "research shows children are best served and permanency outcomes are enhanced when children can safely remain at home with their families," legislative auditors wrote.
DCFS staff in its western region -- Utah, Summit, Wasatch, Juab and Millard counties -- told auditors that they would place fewer children in foster care if more in-home services were available. "Western region placement staff also said community prevention services have been reduced or eliminated, contributing to increases in foster placements," auditors wrote.
However, the division's Salt Lake and eastern region -- Uintah, Grand, Carbon, Daggett and Duchesne counties -- better maintained in-home services relative to foster care service. Providing intensive counseling to families has helped to reduce numbers of children removed from their homes.
Over the past decade, the number of children DCFS serves in foster care has increased 38%, while the number of families receiving in-home services has decreased by 40%.
Utah children are spending more time in foster care than their peers in other states. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the length of time children spend in foster care has decreased nationally from an average of 20 months 1998 to 15 months in 2006.
The audit also found that the number of children going into foster care in Utah has outpaced those leaving the system each year since fiscal year 2002. This, too, bucks national trends where other states are curbing their foster care populations by placing fewer children in custody and reducing the number of children in care.
Foster care is far more expensive than in-home services, the audit says. The audit found that annualized costs of an in-home case is $1,718 compared to $46,451 for a foster care case.
"While these figures are averages and cases vary widely in cost, the figure clearly shows there is a significant difference between in-home and foster care case costs," the audit states.
The audit also points out that the average duration of foster care cases is nearly four times longer than in-home cases.
Enhancing in-home services can reduce numbers of children placed in foster care. This would save money and result in improved outcomes for children, the audit said.
Auditors recommended that DCFS select an in-home service model, train staff and provide services to families whose children are at risk of being removed from their homes.
All regions should implement the model and monitor its use.
Asked for a response to the audit, which also covered adoption subsidies and the division's work practices, DCFS director Brent Platt, in a prepared statement said, "We are exploring all of the recommendations and will make changes as we can."