Citing Arizona's "dangerous, severely deficient foster care system," today a group led by the Arizona Center for the Law in the Public Interest filled a federal class action lawsuit blaming the Department of Child Safety and Department of Health Services for "structural and operational failures" harming 16,000-plus children in the state's foster care system.
The ten plaintiffs named in Beth K. vs Flanagan -- Arizona children in foster care -- are filing on behalf of all other children in the state system, and will be represented by the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest along with the Phoenix-based law firm Coppersmith Brockelman PLC, and the advocacy organization Children's Rights.
Anne Ronan, a lawyer with the Center for the Law in the Public Interest in Phoenix, tells New Times the goal of the lawsuit "is to remedy specific failures in the state's treatment of the more than 16,000 children in foster care."
See also: -Heaven Help the Child
The state agencies are accused of "structural and operational failures" that include:
• A severe shortage in and inaccessibility of physical, mental and behavioral health services available to children in state care • A widespread failure to conduct timely investigations of reports that children have been maltreated while in state foster care custody • A severe and sustained shortage of family foster homes • A widespread failure to engage in basic child welfare practices aimed at maintaining family relationships
Arizona is no stranger to foster care problems. Last year, former-Governor Brewer called the child welfare system "broken," and in 2003, former-Governor Napolitano established an Advisory Commission to address the subject. Today's lawsuit describes several other independent reports that declare Arizona's system deeply troubled.
Some were optimistic last May, when the state established the Department of Child Safety.
But Ronan says the new agency "has not helped with the massive shortage of foster homes, the scarcity and inaccessibility of physical and mental health care, the failing maltreatment investigation practice for children in custody, or the profound lack of support for family reunification."
And the lawsuit notes that, "while foster care rates across the nation have been on the decline, Arizona has experienced a dramatic increase in the number of children in state foster care."
Much of the problem here, says Ronan, is poverty-based neglect and a lack of early-parenting guidance, yet "services to help families stay together have been cut over and over again."
Critics say that the Arizona system also suffers from a legacy of mismanagement and a failure to take corrective and preventative efforts -- measures they argue could save a lot of money in the long run and better serve children and families.
New Jersey is one example of a state that has successfully mitigated its foster care problems with a two-pronged approach: investing in preventative community-based family services and making it a goal to get children in permanent family situations as quickly as possible.
But in Arizona, "we don't have a sufficient number of quality homes with well-trained families, so anytime a problem comes up, the kids just get moved," Ronan says. "There is a culture in the [DCS] to not pay attention to the trauma it causes kids to be moved around."
The lawsuit filed today notes that the number of children in foster care in the state doubled from 2003 to 2012. It also recounts the plaintiffs' stories, including that of Beth K, who at 10 has spent more than half her life in foster care.
"During her time in state foster care, Beth K. has been deprived of needed physical and mental health care, separated from her siblings, deprived of contact with her mother and siblings, and placed in institutional settings on two different occasions," the lawsuit says.
While in a group home, "the state failed to ensure that Beth K. obtained the glasses she needed to see properly," and the orthopedic shoes to correct a limp in her walk. She complained about a toothache for months, and was never taken to a dentist. She said she was hearing voices "telling her to hurt other people or that someone would die," and no proper counseling action was taken. At just 10, she's threatened suicide and self-harm on many occasions, and despite recommendations that she be placed in a therapeutic home, she languished for months temporary homes, shelters, and a hospital psychiatric ward before finally being placed in such a facility last December.
The Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest has an impressive track record in the courtroom. Some examples include: securing residential educational placement for children with severe mental and physical disabilities, successfully proving that Arizona's school finance system violated Arizona's Constitution by discriminating against children in property-poor school districts, and establishing the legal responsibility of the state and county to provide a continuum of community-based services for the seriously mentally ill.
Arizona, says Anne Ronan, needs "a strategic, sustainable plan to help serve children and families from the moment they touch the foster care system."
Editor's Note: This post has been edited from its original version. A previous version misquoted the number of children in foster care, and the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest has provided an updated version of the lawsuit
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