Lawsuit claims Arizona fails to care for foster children

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By Tami Hoey By Tami Hoey

PHOENIX (AP) -- 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.

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.

The lawsuit seeks an order requiring the state to provide children needed health care services, an adequate number of foster homes, visits with their families and investigations of foster homes when maltreatment is suspected.

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