After 15 years, the landmark child welfare case that brought extensive reform and oversight to the Utah foster care system has finally ended. The California-based National Center for Youth Law and the state jointly asked the federal courts Tuesday to dismiss the case.
But exactly what happened to the child plaintiffs -- including the child known as David C. who was abused in foster care -- is unclear as lawyers struggle to locate them. All of them have left state custody and are now adults.
Over the life of the case, Utah's child welfare system has dramatically improved, making the state a model for the nation. Significantly more funding is available; caseworkers have smaller caseloads and are better trained. A Guardian ad Litem's Office provides attorneys who now represent the interests of children in court.
"The overarching outcome is that children who have been abused or neglected in Utah ultimately are going to be safer," said John O'Toole, the director of the National Center for Youth Law.
Other states have also been forced to reform their child welfare system because of successful lawsuits.
The end of the Utah case has been in the works since last year when it was agreed there would be a final check on the system this fall. Based on the terms of the request to the courts, the suit cannot be reopened.
In December, O'Toole sent a letter to Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. praising him for the state's success:
"When the National Center for Youth Law filed suit in 1993, Utah had one of the most troubled foster care systems in the country," O'Toole wrote. "Now, it has one of the best."
Social workers who were once saddled with as many as 50 cases now have an average of 12 to 15. General fund dollars for the Division of Child and Family Services have grown from about $50 million to more than $90 million. The division now works much more closely with families, said Duane Betournay, its director.
"The practice we put in place several years ago was putting families at the center of what we do," he said.