Settlement reached in foster care class action lawsuit
August 11, 2004
SEATTLE - An independent panel will oversee improvements to the state's foster care system as a condition of a settlement announced Wednesday in a class-action lawsuit against the state.
"This lawsuit began with the belief that children deserve better than a pinball-type existence," said plaintiffs' attorney Bill Grimm, describing a system that bounced foster children from home to home. "Today the state of Washington steps forward and, with this agreement, promises children we will do better."
The state persuaded plaintiffs' lawyers to use the state's current plan for improving foster care as the settlement blueprint.
The lawyers say the settlement reaches beyond the status quo, however, by forcing the state to keep its promises to foster children. If the system doesn't improve, they go back to court.
It'll be great if it works, said Amie Watkins, a plaintiff in the original lawsuit who lived in more than 34 foster homes after being removed at age 2 from her parents because of abuse. Sometimes she didn't ever unpack her suitcase, she said.
"Growing up I just wanted to go home, and I just kept moving around. It was really hard," said Watkins, now 22. "I had different religions, different schools, different friends, different parents, different rules - different everything. There are kids out there today going through the same thing."
Her foster parents usually didn't know she had been abused and were ill-prepared to handle her problems, Watkins said. Her learning disabilities weren't discovered until she was 15, and her attachment disorder was diagnosed even later.
"I had some behavioral problems, and they'd say, 'Oh, this child is disturbed.' Instead of addressing them, they'd just kick me out of the home," Watkins said. Though she's now happily married with a baby of her own, she said she still struggles to make friends and trust people.
The reforms described in the settlement will help, Watkins said, but added, "I'll believe it when I see it."
About 7,000 children are now in foster care in Washington state.
The Department of Social and Health Services has tried and failed to improve foster care before, said lead plaintiffs' attorney Tim Farris of Bellingham. He said this settlement will make a crucial difference.
"This agreement empowers a panel to set the standards, demand specific action steps and benchmarks - and they are enforceable," Farris said.
Farris filed the lawsuit in 1998 on behalf of 13 foster children who had endured multiple placements. The state agreed to a $1.3 million settlement in 2001 - about $100,000 for each of the original 13.
The case was also certified as a class action, which put the entire foster care system on trial. The class action sought systemic changes, not monetary damages.
The lawsuit accused the state of violating foster children's constitutional rights to safe and stable homes.
In 2001, a Whatcom County jury agreed with the plaintiffs, and in 2002 Judge David Nichols issued an injunction requiring sweeping changes in the state foster care system. That order was put on hold while the state appealed.
In December 2003, the Washington Supreme Court reversed the injunction and sent the case back to trial. The two sides started mediation in June.
The settlement will not be official until Nichols approves it.
"This is a long-term, comprehensive reform plan, not a short-term fix," said Uma Ahluwalia, the DSHS assistant secretary who took charge of the state's child welfare system in 2003 and has led the most recent attempts at reform.
Advocates for children have followed the case closely and praised the settlement.
"The settlement is enforceable in court," said Paola Maranan, executive director of the Children's Alliance. "Lack of funding is not a defense."
Lack of funding may be a problem, though. The state's entire child welfare improvement plan, of which the foster care settlement is one part, will cost as much as $50 million, Ahluwalia said. Her agency will request the money in the state budget, but the Legislature makes the final decision.
The Legislature will face a $1 billion budget shortfall in the next budget cycle, state officials estimate. A $2.6 billion shortfall over the past two years forced cuts in many programs.
The settlement is a "stick" with which to prod the Legislature for money, Ahluwalia said. If the state doesn't follow the settlement, the independent panel can use that stick to force DSHS back into court.
"This is not a handshake agreement. This is enforceable through the court system," said Grimm, an attorney with the San Francisco-based National Center for Youth Law. He helped argue the case.
The settlement awards $1.8 million in legal fees to Farris' law firm, the National Center for Youth Law, and Columbia Legal Services, which also helped argue the case over the past six years.
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