Arizona agrees to boost care for foster kids to settle suit

PHOENIX (AP) — Arizona's child welfare agency has agreed to boost behavioral and health services for children in foster care and limit use of group homes for those children to settle a lawsuit filed by child advocacy groups.

The state Department of Child Services also will be required to monitor and limit workloads for front-line workers to ensure they can meet the needs of the more than 14,000 children in the state's care.

The lawsuit was filed by the national advocacy group Children’s Rights, the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest and a Phoenix law firm in 2015 on behalf of 10 foster children. A federal judge later certified it as a class action, meaning all children in the state's care were being represented.

The settlement agreement was announced Wednesday by the department. U.S. District Judge Roslyn Silver signed off on the preliminary settlement on Tuesday and set a final approval hearing Feb. 21.

The legal action came after Arizona did a massive overhaul of its child welfare system in 2014 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.

The state in 2016 had more than 19,000 children in foster care but has reduced that to just over 14,000, according to a June report by the agency.

The lawsuit alleged the state failed to provide needed mental and other health care, and enough foster homes to house children removed from their families. It also accused the state of failing to investigate reports of maltreatment in existing foster homes and not providing basic services that reunite children with their families.

“Our agreement is a major step toward ensuring that children who are in the state’s custody can live in their home communities, stay in the same schools and live with their brothers and sisters," Anne Ronan, an attorney with The Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, said in a statement.

DCS Director Mike Faust said in a statement that the agency has made “significant progress” in the past five years.

“We are committed to continuing our endeavors to improve the lives of Arizona’s children and families,” he said.

The state must meet ongoing benchmarks, and will pay $6.5 million in attorney fees and costs to the groups that sued. The state will also pay $150,000 a year for ongoing monitoring of its performance and is expected to meet benchmarks in the settlement by 2025.