A federal judge released Alabama from nearly two decades of court control over its child welfare system Tuesday, ruling that the "depraved conditions" that triggered the litigation no longer exist.
U.S. District Judge Ira DeMent granted the state's motion to end the case, which began in 1988 with a suit filed on behalf of a child identified only by his initials, R.C. The court found that the child's care and treatment by the Alabama Department of Human Resources was deplorable.
Over the years, the suit led to sweeping changes in the state's child welfare system, with a settlement reached in 1991. It set new standards and caseload maximums, required more child welfare workers to be hired and greater agency funding. The agency's budget went from $62.6 million in 1998 to $286 million in 2004.
Gov. Bob Riley said Alabama's child welfare system is now a model for the nation.
"What had been a dysfunctional system years ago is now considered the premier system in America," Riley said in a statement. "A lot of work has gone into making this transformation possible and we pledge to continue working hard to improve it even more for the well-being of the children and families of this state."
Children's advocate begs to differ
James Tucker, a lawyer representing foster children who has repeatedly said the state was not doing enough, said he was disappointed by DeMent's decision. He said there are still concerns about the sustainability of the changes that have been made.
But he said in phone interview Tuesday evening that the state has made progress over the years as a result of the suit, notably in establishing a case load standard to ensure that social workers are not overloaded.
"We are grateful that we've been able to do the work we have done and to bring attention to some important issues," Tucker said. "This state has come a long way in these 19 years."
Tucker said the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program had not decided yet whether it would appeal the decision.
"DHR's success in the area of services can be attributed, in part, to its financial commitment to obtaining and spending the funds necessary for the creation and implementation of these services," DeMent wrote in his ruling.
The department, DeMent said, is spending $100 million more for child services annually than required by the consent order.
Repeated previous requests
The state has asked DeMent repeatedly to terminate the case, contending the agency has long been in compliance with terms of the consent decree. State Attorney General Troy King submitted a three-page motion in August asking for the end of the case.
In his ruling Tuesday, the judge said the child welfare system now "substantially complies" with the settlement and that "judicial oversight is no longer necessary to avoid a return to the depraved conditions" that led to the suit and court intervention.
R.C., the child whose initials were on the suit, had developed behavioral problems after his parents split up when he was in elementary school. After Jefferson County welfare officials intervened, the boy was placed on medication and shuffled through various institutions without any thorough evaluation, according to the court record.
DeMent, in ending the case, relied in part on on-site reviews carried out last year by the federal court monitor. The reviews were conducted on a randomly selected sample of children in 10 counties and was similar to past reviews.
"Through the court monitor's thorough and systematic evaluation of each county in Alabama, each county has reformed its child welfare practices and has demonstrated that it can provide care for its children in a manner which conforms to the requirements of the Consent Decree," DeMent wrote.
"Its difficult to overstate the significance of the end of the R.C. case," said DHR Commissioner Page Walley. "I want to thank Judge DeMent for his willingness to step in and assist the state as we took our child welfare program from the bottom to the top, and, of course, I want to recognize and thank the hard-working staff of DHR at both the state level and local level. They are the ones who dramatically improved the system and made this day possible."