A commission released its recommendations to fix Washington state’s faulty system that delivers services to children and families by breaking up the agency out of the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) and creating a new, independent department addressing the needs of children 21 years old and younger.
The proposal would dramatically realign the current system, including the state’s foster care system, by taking the Children’s Administration out of DSHS and combining it with the Department of Early Learning and elements of the juvenile justice system.
The recommendations are the result of a nine-month process launched by Gov. Jay Inslee in February 2016 to try to improve outcomes in Washington state’s troubled child welfare system, particularly the foster care system, which has been singled out because of its poor results.
The Washington State Legislature must approve any new department.
Combining the Children’s Administration with other state offices would provide families with easier access to services and, ideally, prevent child abuse and neglect, said Anne Levinson, a former judge and co-chair of the commission.
The current system is so fragmented that it’s almost impossible to answer straightforward questions, such as how much money the state is spending on services for children and families, Levinson said.
“We came at it with a different philosophy about the governor’s concerns,” Levinson said. “We decided to start with the data and see what ways we were not getting outcomes.”
As proposed, the new Department of Children, Youth and Families would follow modern notions of child brain science, which emphasize the impacts of “adverse childhood experiences,” or aces, on the developing brain. The more aces that a child has, the greater the likelihood for substance abuse and other negative outcomes in adulthood.
As a result, the new department will focus on prevention rather than intervention. The department would hold all programs that provide supports to families so that case workers can meet with their clients early and be able to assess potential problems before they become dangerous to the children. It would also be easier to navigate the complicated social services system by giving families one department with integrated computer systems to approach for help.
Changing the range of ages seen within the department is critical, said Ruthann Howell, executive director of Wellspring Family Services at the press conference called to release the results. It’s inefficient and ineffective to work with the individual child and the family in isolation. Additionally, 30 percent of the families seen by Wellspring Family Services have parents who are themselves still quite young, between 17 and 25.
Currently, most children age out of services when they become legal adults at age 18. Some children can enter programs to continue receiving services until they are 21.
A 2007 report recommending that the government reorganize its services for children and families noted that foster care trends were “of concern,” highlighting that there are more children entering the system, fewer family reunifications and longer stays in the foster care system.
The situation has not improved.
InvestigateWest, a nonprofit investigative journalism outlet, began reporting on Washington’s foster care system this year, exposing practices such as bouncing children from home to home and housing them in hotels when no foster families were available. Children as young as 2 years old had 211 hotel stays in June, more than any other month since the ombudsman began receiving complaints two years ago, InvestigateWest reported.
Social workers complain of high caseloads, despite the settlement of a 1998 class action lawsuit called Braam v. Washington that was meant to reduce them. The judge in that case, Charles Snyder of the Whatcom County Superior Court, found that the “essence” of the class action was about “inappropriate and insufficient levels of care and services being offered and provided to children in foster care.”
The settlement required systemic changes including a decrease in the number of cases assigned to each social worker, but as of 2016 that provision is no longer monitored or enforceable.
One result is heavy turnover within the Children’s Administration, which appears to be higher than turnover within the wider department. An analysis of four years of employment and salary data showed turnover rate of between 10 and 14 percent of people designated as a “social services specialist” within DSHS, depending on the year.
Children’s Administration has a 20 percent turnover rate, said Rep. Ruth Kagi, co-chair of the commission that produced the recommendations.
“That has an impact on kids and care,” Kagi said.
Turnover is high, but the state has an avenue for finding new social workers. DSHS has an existing relationship with the University of Washington called the Child Welfare Training and Advancement Program (CWTAP), which trains new social workers and offers them a position within the Children’s Administration upon graduation.
That program produced 248 graduates between 2012 and 2015, according to data released by DSHS.
The job offer is not guaranteed, but it’s very likely, said Ben de Haan, executive director of Partners for Our Children, an organization that evaluates the training programs that Children’s Administration employees take.
How, exactly, the new department will be able to address these issues isn’t clear. The commission recommended the creation of an Office of Innovation and Alignment “to create a data-focused environment” in which to make decisions about how to best run the new department, as well as partnerships with the Washington State Institute for Public Policy and the Washington State Center for Court Research.
That’s in part because of the important work that the commission did not accomplish over the course of its seven meetings, such as attempt any kind of performance review of the agencies within DSHS that provide care to children and families or look at “programmatic approaches to achieving the vision of the new agency.”
A cost estimate for all programmatic changes is fairly low, with new funding for the 2017–19 biennium at just under $2 million.
Patrick Dowd, director of the Office of Family and Children’s Ombuds and commissioner, said that he was pleased with the recommendations and confident in the prescriptions that the commission put forward, but that the ultimate success of the new department will depend on the resources behind it.
“The concern I would have is the reality that there are limited resources that Washington state has to deal with,” Dowd said.
Breaking the department out has the benefit of ensuring dedicated resources rather than relying on DSHS to direct money to the Children’s Administration, Dowd said, but it doesn’t guarantee the level of funding needed to fix the organization’s problems.
The Legislature will have to approve the proposals for the new department. The legislative session begins Jan. 9, 2017.
This story has been updated to explain that some foster care clients can stay in the program until they are 21.