Groups sue AZ for failing to care for foster children

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Children's advocacy groups on Tuesday sued the state of Arizona, claiming it violated the civil rights of nearly 17,000 children in its foster care system by exposing them to possible harm.

The suit filed in U.S. District Court in Phoenix said the state fails to provide needed mental and other health care, and enough foster homes to house children removed from their families.

The suit also accuses the state of failing to investigate reports of maltreatment in existing foster homes and not providing basic services that reunite children with their families.

The suit was filed on behalf of 10 foster children and seeks class-action status. The children are represented by the national advocacy group Children's Rights, the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest and a Phoenix law firm.

The legal action came after Arizona did a massive overhaul of its child welfare system last year in the wake of revelations that the overburdened Child Protective Services agency had failed to investigate thousands of abuse and neglect reports phoned in to a state hotline.

The overhaul removed CPS from its former parent agency and created a new stand-alone Department of Child Safety.

Anne Ronan, an attorney with the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, said those reforms did nothing to address the problems faced by children in foster care.

"The state's recent efforts to reduce its huge backlog of reports that children have been maltreated in their homes do not even address, much less remedy, the core deficiencies that are harming children already in state custody," Ronan said in a statement.

The suit names the head of Arizona's child welfare and health services agencies as defendants. A spokeswoman for the Department of Child Safety said her agency doesn't comment on litigation. A Health Services Department spokeswoman had no immediate comment.

"Arizona suffers from many systemic failures rooted in deficient processes, insufficient training, and a lack of accountability at every level from frontline workers to administration within the Department of Child Safety, other state agencies that serve children in foster care, and private service providers," said Dawn Teo of Foster Children's Rights Coalition.

"All three branches of Arizona government have failed the children of Arizona by not improving failed processes and not holding government agencies and service providers accountable for the safety and care of children in Arizona foster care," Teo added.

According to a news release, Foster Children's Rights Coalition proposed an eight-point comprehensive reform plan for improving child safety in Arizona, including legislative action, policy reforms, and improved oversight of service providers:   

  • Create transparency and accountability at every level of government agencies and service providers who service children in Arizona foster care.
  • Overhaul behavioral health care licensing, accessibility, and availability so that children in foster care receive adequate behavioral health services in a timely manner.
  • Reduce institutionalized care, and provide the necessary physical, mental, and behavioral health services for traumatized children to remain in family environments.
  • Establish educational advocacy procedures and training to improve educational outcomes for children in foster care.
  • Appropriately assess and disclose potential risks to foster parents regarding specific placements before children are placed in the home.
  • Establish compliance with federal and state laws.
  • Strengthen collaboration between state agencies, law enforcement, service providers, educational institutions, and foster parents.
  • Establish a quality assurance team through the governor's office to hold DCS, other state agencies, and service providers accountable.

Rep. Kate Brophy McGee, (R-Phoenix), said she's not surprised by the allegations.

"I think we're still digging our way out from the cuts from prior years and we have yet in my mind to implement the supports that need to be there," said Brophy McGee, who sits on a joint legislative committee overseeing child welfare. "I'm assured that we're working on it but I'm not sure how much progress we have made."

The number of children in foster care has soared in recent years. In March 2010 there were 10,207 children in state care, and that rose to more than 15,000 by September 2013, according to the lawsuit. It says the number increased by nearly 2,000 from 2013 to September 2014.

Copyright 2015 CBS 5 (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.