Scope of foster suit is debated
Officials want stay until class-action decision
State child-welfare officials are asking a judge to hold up further work in a lawsuit over Arizona’s foster-care system until a higher court decides whether the matter should be a class-action suit.
A stay on further proceedings in the long-running suit would save money and effort, attorneys for the state argued in a motion filed last week with U.S. District Judge Roslyn Silver.
Silver is overseeing a lawsuit filed in 2015 by Children’s Rights, a New Yorkbased organization that advocates for children in foster care. The group sued the Department of Child Safety, as well as the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, for maltreatment of kids in foster care. AHCCCS handles the medical, dental and behavioralhealth needs of children in the state’s care.
In September, Silver certified the case as a class action. That means the outcome would apply not just to the handful of children named in the original filing, but to all children in foster care now and in the future. The suit seeks system reforms ranging from better practices to keep families together to closing what it calls a “severe shortage” of medical, dental and behavioralhealth services to foster children.
“The Ninth Circuit’s decision squarely impacts the scope, size and substance of this litigation.” Private attorneys hired by the state to defend the case
The state last month won a chance to appeal the class-action decision to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. And because that appeal is pending, the state attorneys argue, it makes sense to put a hold on the underlying case until it’s clear whether the suit will proceed as a class action or a smaller suit affecting only the two children remaining from the 2015 filing.
“The Ninth Circuit’s decision squarely impacts the scope, size and substance of this litigation,” wrote the private attorneys hired by the state to defend the case.
For example, if the state’s appeal is successful, much work on the underlying case could be moot, they wrote.
The 9th Circuit’s eventual decision will make a difference in how much time and effort is put into interviewing expert witnesses, working through pretrial procedures and, ultimately, a trial, they noted.
In addition, a stay on the ongoing case would save DCS and AHCCCS money — sums that could be redirected to caring for children, the state’s attorneys argued.
The plaintiffs said they will dispute the arguments in a response they expect to file this week.
Stay could push action on case into next year
On Thursday, attorney Anne Ronan with the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest noted a stay would further delay a case that has lingered for nearly three years already.
Currently, the case is scheduled for a June pretrial order; a stay could push any significant action in the case into next year, she said.
“It’s another year’s delay,” she said, adding that she and other plaintiffs contend foster-care problems have not abated. The center is among the attorneys representing children in foster care.
Both sides, however, agree that arguments before the 9th Circuit should be accelerated. Currently, the first briefs in the appeal are not due until mid-March, meaning a decision on whether the case should remain a class-action matter might not happen until late this year, or even later.
Reach the reporter at maryjo.pitzl@arizona republic.com and follow her on Twitter @maryj pitzl.