Children and families caught in the state’s beleaguered child welfare system have some significant good news to celebrate this week as the state, with millions of extra dollars just appropriated by legislators, launches a major restructuring of the system.

Lawmakers this year passed a half-dozen new laws and millions in funding to reform child welfare programs, better support foster parents, lower social worker caseloads, and help foster youth get drivers licenses and access to lawyers, among other efforts.

The most far-reaching of these bills, HB 1661, consolidates child protection, early learning and juvenile justice programs under a new Department of Children, Youth and Families. The new, more prevention-focused agency aims to help families before children are removed due to neglect or abuse, and before youth get into trouble with the law. The bill passed June 30 with broad bipartisan support.

“It was a great session for kids and families,” said Rep. Ruth Kagi, a Seattle Democrat who chairs the House Early Learning and Human Services Committee and was a prime sponsor of HB 1661. When she and child welfare advocates went to Olympia in January, they had instead expected that the debate over school funding would drown out other priorities.

“I was just so pleased when it all came together, and very pleasantly surprised,” Kagi said, “because I thought they were going to have to take deep, deep cuts in human services, and they didn’t.”

The state’s foster care system, now run by the Children’s Administration, faces a crisis-level shortage of foster homes, as shown by a series of reports by InvestigateWest in partnership with Crosscut and KCTS 9. Kagi, the legislator who has campaigned most extensively to help foster children over the last decade, credited that reporting as critical to the success of her cause this year.

Observers say the crisis in foster care is driven largely by the Legislature’s chronic under-funding of the Children’s Administration. Stagnant salaries, cuts to services for the most troubled foster children and reduced supports for struggling foster parents have contributed to an exodus of foster parents and case workers.

Launching a new ship

Now it will be the job of the new secretary of the Department of Children, Youth and Families, Ross Hunter, to fix the state’s ailing child welfare system. Gov. Jay Inslee appointed Hunter, who until now led the Department of Early Learning, at last Thursday’s bill signing.

One of Hunter’s first tasks is to plan for integrating his old department with the Children’s Administration and the Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration, both now inside the Department of Social and Health Services, starting next July.

Lawmakers sought to build greater accountability into the new department’s design. An Office of Innovation, Alignment and Accountability will make research-based recommendations, evaluate services and monitor reforms, among other functions.

The office also must recommend ways to improve the system for addressing foster parent complaints. Foster parents say they now feel ignored and their complaints are often met with hostility from agency workers.

The law lays out a number of specific measures the department must track, including reducing children’s length of stay in foster care, increasing stability and the number of children who return to their birth families, and improving consultation with foster parents. The department must make data on these metrics publicly available by the end of 2018.

But don’t expect to see changes overnight, advocates say. “This is a 10- to 15-year fix,” said Mike Canfield, a longtime foster parent and the executive director of the Foster Parents Association of Washington. “It’s like launching a ship in the right direction, and what we have to avoid is people falling into complacency.”

Giving foster parents a break

Foster parents also have reason to cheer a bill that came out of the Senate. SB 5890 will provide short-term, in-home help to foster parents who need a break for a few hours. One of foster parents’ biggest complaints is that they feel unsupported, especially in recent years as social worker caseloads have swelled and the state eliminated other staff whose sole job was helping foster parents.

Sen. Steve O’Ban, the Republican from University Place who chairs the Senate Human Services, Mental Health and Housing Committee, sponsored the bill after conversations with foster parents.

To boost the number of foster homes, the far-ranging SB 5890 requires the state to create an expedited relicensing process for foster parents who allowed their licenses to expire in the past five years. Until now, former foster parents had to start the whole process over again and repeat lengthy trainings, which could take up to a year. The expedited process is supposed to take only four months.

The bill’s other provisions include creating a panel that will review the cases of foster children who have not found permanent homes within 18 months, and encouraging adoption of teenagers by upping the support payments adoptive parents can get from the state. And all family members who foster related children will now be eligible to receive cash assistance to care for them, removing a barrier for many older caregivers with fixed incomes.

“These are all little efforts to plug holes in the system,” Canfield said.

Should foster kids have attorneys?

One last-minute addition to SB 5890, championed by Rep. Noel Frame, a Seattle Democrat, will assign a lawyer to children in Grant and Lewis counties by the time they have their first court hearing after being removed from their homes. Children’s access to attorneys varies across the state and is not guaranteed until a judge has already taken a way parents’ rights to get their kids back.

Right now, Frame said, “the state has an attorney, and their parents have an attorney … but the kids don’t have attorneys, and it’s their life that’s at stake.”

Frame, who has fostered two teenage relatives, sponsored a bill early in the session to give all foster children in the state a lawyer before their first hearing, but the hefty price tag doomed that effort this year. She hopes that this demonstration pilot will show, as other states have found, that children with lawyers find permanent homes faster, and that it could even save the state money.

Kagi said that the state has changed laws to better support parents in recent years, but “there’s nothing increasing the ability of children to be at the table about their own futures.” Giving children legal representation was “one of the more important things that we did in the bill in the end,” she said.

Unexpected good budget news

The final operating budget also included unexpected good news for child welfare proponents who feared cuts going into the session.

The Republican-controlled Senate initially passed a budget that would have further trimmed the Children’s Administration budget, and it did not include money for the new department, more social workers or a substantial boost to worker salaries.

But in the end, lawmakers approved a net $14 million increase for a number of foster care and adoption programs, and another $28 million to increase social worker salaries. They also appropriated $6.3 million for the rollout of the Department of Children, Youth and Families. Those amounts don’t represent a huge bump in the Children’s Administration’s two-year, $1.2 billion budget, but advocates are happy to have won some targeted new funding. “It’s really a lot of investments in trying to improve outcomes for kids,” Kagi said.

The state will use the added funds to hire more workers in order to speed foster home licensing and lower caseloads — which can exceed 25 per worker. The budget also funds 24 short-term, emergency beds in facilities to reduce the department’s use of hotels to cope with the foster home shortage. The state has temporarily housed hundreds of kids as young as 2 years old in hotels in recent years.

Social workers, who often leave the Children’s Administration after a year or less for better paying jobs elsewhere, will get the 16 percent pay raise in their collective bargaining agreement. High caseworker turnover has made it harder to keep foster parents, who say over-stretched workers can’t provide the support families need to be successful.

Kagi and others are hopeful that the budget picture for children and families will continue to improve under the Department of Children, Youth and Families, whose cabinet-level secretary will now be “coming to the Legislature and making the case for what resources they need — and be held accountable when things aren’t going well,” Kagi said.

Child welfare bills passed this session

HB 1661: Creates a new, stand-alone Department of Children, Youth and Families combining early learning, child welfare and juvenile justice programs.

SB 5890: Multiple provisions to help foster parents and children, including providing case aides to support foster parents, expedited foster parent relicensing, eliminating mean-testing for cash support to relative caregivers, increasing adoption support payments, and piloting early legal representation for foster children in two counties.

HB 1624: Allows families with closed child welfare cases to continue receiving subsidized child care for up to 12 months through the Working Connections Child Care program.

HB 1867: Allows youth ages 18 to 21 in extended foster care to leave the program once and still be eligible to return to it, with the goal of reducing the large number of former foster children who end up homeless.

SB 5241: Requires school districts to help homeless and foster youth graduate on time by transferring and consolidating credits from the multiple schools these children often attend.

HB 1808: Helps foster youth get a driver’s license by reimbursing driver training and licensing fees, and the increased cost of insurance for foster parents who add a child to their insurance.

This report was supported by grants from the Fund for Investigative Journalism, the Satterberg Foundation and the Thomas V. Giddens, Jr., Foundation.

Child welfare budget highlights (2017-19 operating budget)

  • $6.3 million for the rollout of new Department of Children, Youth and Families.
  • $6.2 million to hire case workers and lower average caseloads to 18.
  • $1.9 million for 10 positions to speed foster and adoptive home licensing.
  • $4 million for 24 emergency beds to reduce the use of hotels.
  • $3.7 million to restructure adoption support payments and for case aides to support foster parents.
  • $1.6 million to eliminate means testing for cash assistance (TANF) for relative caregivers.
  • $2.2 million to hire attorneys to address caseloads from increased dependency filings.
  • $5.8 million for a statewide expansion of the Parents Representation Program, which provides enhanced legal services to parents with child welfare cases.
  • $27.9 million to increase social worker salaries.
  • Cuts: a one-time, $10.3 million cut to the Children’s Administration to reflect under-spending in 2017; $1 million in cuts to management positions (all agencies will take a 6 percent management cut).

Allegra Abramo

Allegra Abramo

Allegra is a freelance writer based in Seattle. She previously worked for InvestigateWest on the 2016 statehouse reporting project, and has been covering issues related to child welfare for InvestigateWest since 2016.

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