Lawsuit charges Arizona child welfare system with widespread failures

Class-action lawsuit brought against Arizona child welfare agencies

The Arizona child welfare system has been accused of failing to provide youths in foster care with adequate medical and dental care as well as needed therapeutic housing, in a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday on behalf of 10 children.

The complaint filed by three legal groups against the state's Department of Child Safety and Department of Health Services alleges that there is a “severe shortage” of physical, mental and behavioral health services available to children in state foster care. The suit charges that the department has failed to conduct timely investigations of reports that children have been maltreated while in state foster care.

It also alleges that there is a shortage of family foster homes in the state and a “widespread failure” on the part if the state to help troubled children maintain relationship with their families.

The suit was filed by Children’s Rights Inc., Coppersmith Brockelman PLC and the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest. It comes after a backlog of thousands of child abuse cases dating back to 2009 forced the reorganization of the child welfare system, which former Republican Gov. Jan Brewer called “broken, impeded by years of structural and operational failures,” according to the complaint.

“What we hope is that the state really focuses on the problems that are plaguing the child welfare agency ... and that those problems can be improved upon,” said William Kapell, lead counsel at Children’s Rights Inc., an advocacy group. “We have a lot of confidence that they can be. These types of problems have been dealt with effectively in other states.”

In a statement, Daniel Scarpinato, deputy chief of staff for communications for Republican Gov. Doug Ducey, said: “We are reviewing this filing. Gov. 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.”

The 52-page complaint includes the personal experiences of 10 children, identified by pseudonyms, ranging in age from 3 to 14. Four of the 10 were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and also expressed suicidal thoughts.

The doctors of one child, identified as 7-year-old C.P., recommended twice that he be placed in a therapeutic foster home, beginning in January 2014. In April 2014, he was put into a therapeutic home, but because this placement is temporary, he will not receive the intensive trauma therapy he needs until he is in a more stable home, according to the complaint.

While the foster-care rates nationwide have declined, between 2003 and 2012 Arizona’s rate has nearly doubled. Between March 2010 and February 2013, the number of children in the Arizona foster-care system grew from 10,207 to 15,037, a 47% increase, according to the complaint.

At the same time, there have been “extensive” state budget cuts to services that previously helped to keep families together, leading to higher numbers of foster youth, according to the complaint.

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