PHOENIX (CN) - Arizona's deep budget cuts threaten thousands of foster children with physical and emotional harm, 10 children claim in a federal class action.
Ten foster children and their next friends sued Arizona Department of Child Safety Director Charles Flanagan and Arizona Department of Health Services Director William Humble on Tuesday, alleging numerous civil rights violations on behalf of more than 16,000 children in the state's foster care system.
Arizona's population of foster children, many of whom have been removed from their families because of abuse and neglect, nearly doubled from 2003 to 2012, a time during which national rates declined, according to the 51-page lawsuit.
"This huge growth in the state's foster care population has been fueled by extensive state budget cuts to important support services that had previously helped keep families together," the complaint states.
Community-based providers and in-home services which "aimed at making removal of children into foster care unnecessary" have seen some of the deepest cuts, declining from $43 million in fiscal year 2008 to less than $22 million in fiscal year 2012, according to the plaintiffs.
The lawsuit identifies several issues that have "plagued" the state's foster-care system for at least a decade, leading former Gov. Jan Brewer to describe it as "broken" in 2014.
These include "a severe shortage in and inaccessibility of physical, mental and behavioral health services available to children in state care."
"As a result, far too many children in state foster care custody do not receive the health care services they desperately need and all children in state care are subject to an unreasonable risk that they will suffer physical and emotional harm and deterioration while in the state's care," the complaint states.
It tells of the often horrific foster-care experiences of the 10 plaintiffs, all of whom are identified only by their initials.
One 10-year-old girl, B.K., who has spent most of her life in foster care, was so neglected by the system that she eventually threatened suicide.
"The state failed to ensure that B.K. obtained the glasses she needed to see properly," the lawsuit states. "The state also failed to discover that B.K. was walking with a limp, and failed to make sure that she received the orthopedic shoes she needed. Despite months of complaints from B.K. about a toothache, the state failed to make sure she saw a dentist while she was living at the group home."
B.K. later reported "hearing voices that were telling her to hurt other people or that someone would die," according to the complaint, and in December 2014 she "had another psychiatric crisis and threatened suicide" and "the state moved her out of the foster home and admitted her to another psychiatric hospital."
The foster-care system is dogged by a "widespread failure to conduct timely investigations of reports that children have been maltreated while in state foster care custody"; a "severe and sustained shortage of family foster homes"; and a "widespread failure to engage in basic child welfare practices aimed at maintaining family relationships," according to the complaint.
The plaintiffs seek an injunction and other relief to "ensure that all members of the General Class receive ... physical, mental and behavioral health services," prompt investigations of reports of abuse and neglect, and concentration up on and commitment to reunification with siblings and biological parents.
The plaintiffs are represented by the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest and Coppersmith Brockelman in Phoenix.
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