Arizona Foster Care Class Action Lawsuit Gets Mixed Reactions

Since the news of a lawsuit about Arizona's "dangerous, severely deficient foster care system" broke on Tuesday, February 4, the story has made headlines around the nation. It's been reported in the Wall Street Journal and USA Today, and if the past week is any indication, Beth K. v Flanagan appears to be a case many will follow closely in the upcoming months.

To recap, 10 plaintiff children in the Arizona foster care system filed a federal class action lawsuit against the Department of Child Safety and Department of Health Services for numerous "structural and operational failures." They're suing on behalf of the 16,000-plus children in the state's foster care system, and their suit is similar to others currently being fought around the country.

See also: Arizona Departments of Child Safety and Health Sued Over Foster Care System

In the past week, reactions to the lawsuit have ranged from outright support to questions about whether a suit is the most prudent move. (There also are those who've been almost entirely silent, namely Arizona officials. See below for Governor Doug Ducey's statement.)

Anne Ronan, an attorney with the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest (one of the three groups representing the plaintiffs), says she's received an overwhelmingly positive reaction in the past few days. "Lots of people in the community have been saying 'it's about time,'" and even "some folks in the court system have been quietly telling us 'good job,'" she tells New Times.

Sarah Buel, an attorney specializing in family law at ASU's Sandra Day O'Connor School of Law, agrees, writing in an email that "the lawsuit is meritorious and necessary [because] decades of committees, commissions and task forces have not brought about the desperately needed changes." (Her emphasis.)

But it seems not everyone is convinced. In breaking from the positive tenor of most of its coverage of the lawsuit, the editorial board of the Arizona Republic debated its value in a lengthy letter published Wednesday night. In it, the editors write that "there is a danger in making policy by anecdote," and then go on to question whether a lawsuit will even help the situation. "Lawsuits are long and expensive, and this one could distract the state from the immediate need to monitor and properly fund the new child-welfare agency . . . Advocates cannot become so wrapped up in winning they forget the ultimate goal."

In response to questions raised in the editorial, Ronan writes to New Times, "of course it is dangerous to make policy based on anecdotes, but the complaint [also] alleges a lot of well-documented facts." She adds that fears about whether the case will distract from the ability to reform the system are "always out there," but it would be the "state's mistake [to] focus on defending the lawsuit and sacrifice reforming the system. The two are not mutually exclusive." (Buel simply says this claim "makes little sense," since "the Attorney General's Office or other retained counsel will represent DCS in this case, not the DCS caseworkers and advocates.")

Buel also dismisses any charge about how expensive this case could be because the money is there, it just depends on where it gets spent. "Arizona has the funds to better protect its children, but successive administrations have prioritized building prisons and related short-sighted expenditures. For example, The Arizona Republic reported in [January] of 2015 that Governor Ducey's budget includes $100 [million] for private prisons."

She adds, "It is far more expensive to continue the unethical practices documented in this lawsuit," and cites a CDC report about the exorbitant costs of child abuse. The report concludes by saying that "a promising array of prevention and response programs have great potential to reduce child maltreatment, [so given] the substantial economic burden of child maltreatment, the benefits of prevention will likely outweigh the costs for effective programs."

When asked why the board wrote what it did, editor Philip Boas responded that the piece was meant to reflect the board's ambivalence. "We're of mixed minds, and question whether this is the best time [to file a lawsuit] because there is an effort being made to fix child foster care" on a state level, he says, referring to the creation of the Department of Child Safety last year. "If Arizona weren't totally remaking the system, it would have been easy to come out of the gate and support the lawsuit." But since there "is an effort being made to fix the foster care system," the board wonders if now the time to get tangled up in one.

Ronan says she's also fielded a lot of questions about timing, adding that she's been "surprised that people [are] so surprised about it." Every time a reporter asks "why now?" she says she'd like to reply, "what do you mean why are we doing it now? We should have done it a long time ago!"

Buel takes it a step further, writing that "as an advocate for victims of child abuse and domestic violence since 1977, I have devoted countless hours to documenting the needs of children in state care, sitting on Commissions, and pleading with legislators and policymakers for needed improvements.... the state has been on notice for decades that it is not in compliance with minimal services mandated by state and federal law." (Her emphasis.) Meaning, no one at the state level should be surprised by this case.

And these aren't just superfluous benefits, she'd remind critics, "These are services to which children in care are legally entitled."


Shortly after news of the lawsuit broke, Governor Ducey's office released this brief statement: "We are reviewing this filing. Governor Ducey takes the safety and well-being of foster care children extremely seriously. They are among the most vulnerable in our state and the governor believes it is imperative that the government protect them."

New Times has repeatedly requested an updated statement, only to be told that the office is "still reviewing" the case. (The state departments of Health and Child Safety declined to comment, and deferred to the Governor's office for an official statement.)

Got a tip? Send it to: Miriam Wasser.

Follow Valley Fever on Twitter at @ValleyFeverPHX. Follow Miriam Wasser at @MiriamWasser.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Miriam is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Miriam Wasser