The Arizona Department of Child Safety will have to defend how it handles the more than 14,000 children in foster care now and all those who will be there in the future, a court says.
In a unanimous ruling Friday, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decided that most of the claims against the state should be handled in a class-action lawsuit. That means the department will face questions on not just how it has handled the care of a handful of children who filed suit, but whether its policies endanger others in the system.
Friday’s ruling does not force DCS to do anything — yet. Instead, it sends the case back to U.S. District Court Judge Roslyn Silver, who will hear evidence of the department’s practices.
“It allows us to go forward with the case and prove the claim that the children who are in the foster care system are not receiving the services they need to be successful and they’re not being placed in appropriate living arrangements and they’re not being reunited with their families,” said attorney Anne Ronan of the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest. She is part of the legal team suing the state.
If the challengers win, it could force DCS to reform its practices and hire more caseworkers to ensure that they are not overloaded.
There was no immediate response from DCS.
The lawsuit, first filed in 2015, claims that there is “a severe shortage of mental, behavioral and other health care services.”
It also alleges that DCS has failed to investigate reports that children in foster care were maltreated.
There also are claims of a severe shortage of foster homes and “failure to engage in basic practices for maintaining family relationships.”
The original lawsuit named 10 children as plaintiffs.
But in 2017, Silver agreed to allow the case to continue as a class-action lawsuit, effectively allowing those children and their attorneys to seek relief for not just them but everyone else in the foster care system.
At a hearing earlier this year, attorneys for the state argued against class-action status, saying that reforms have been made since the original lawsuit was filed.
Attorney for the state Rob Ellman also said the problems faced by the original 10 plaintiffs do not represent the situations faced by all the children in foster care. And some of the original plaintiffs are no longer in the system.
But appellate Judge Clifford Wallace, writing Friday’s ruling for the three-judge panel, said handling the issue on a class-action basis makes the most sense.
The judge said the allegations about the effects of statewide practices are “common questions of law or fact” that can be litigated in a single case rather than each foster child having to file a separate lawsuit.
Wallace also said there are some common practices at issue here, including the excessive use of emergency shelters and group homes, the unnecessary separation of children, and placement of children far from home.
If the problems facing foster children are caused by state policies, then “a single, indivisible injunction ordering state officials to abate those policies would provide relief to each member of the class,” Wallace said.