Alabama Breaks Free

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Alabama’s child welfare system is finally free from oversight after a lawsuit that began 20 years ago. But James Tucker is still watching.

Plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit that put Alabama’s Department of Human Resources (DHR) under federal control for 16 years are not happy that a judge has freed the department from that control, but they saw the writing on the wall.

A U.S. district judge terminated the decree in January, and that decision was upheld on appeal in March. Tucker, the lead attorney on the case, decided not to appeal the decision further.

The state has vastly increased the resources available for child welfare work, Tucker said, which has helped it maximize the federal contribution to state services. That helped DHR “increase the number of social workers so that caseload standards are notably reduced,” he said.

From a practice standpoint, “they’re doing a far better job conducting timely investigations,” Tucker said. “The horror stories were legion when this case was filed. Uninvestigated claims numbered in the thousands on several occasions.”

But federal reviews show Alabama next-to-last among the states in achieving permanent placements for youth in care, which is a predominant reason that the plaintiffs wanted the oversight to continue.

The case was filed by the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program, where Tucker is an attorney, and the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law.

The advocacy program represents individual youths in foster care, and through that work Tucker intends to monitor the state’s performance.