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Poverty, disability, homelessness wouldn’t qualify as sole reason to take kids away

With tears in her eyes, Karen Osborne recalled the day in 2014 when police showed up to take away her 6-week-old daughter. Osborne hadn’t been accused of abuse nor neglect. Instead, social workers were concerned about Osborne’s “mental capacity.” They had already removed seven of Osborne’s previous children and made plans to remove her new baby before she was even born.

Social workers and a doctor who examined the baby didn’t find any evidence that the child was maltreated, according to case notes obtained by Disability Rights Washington. Rather than actual observations of Osborne’s parenting skills, state officials deemed her unfit to parent based on IQ tests. They moved to terminate her parental rights 18 months after removing the child, before Osborne had even completed parenting classes required by the state.

“I desperately want the laws to be changed,” Osborne said. “Instead of taking the kids away, give families the services they need. What they are doing is causing more trauma for the kids, especially.”

Osborne could soon get her wish. State lawmakers are considering a bill that would tighten the standards for removing children from their parents and ensure that disability, poverty, inadequate housing and other conditions that don’t necessarily pose an imminent threat to a child’s physical safety cannot be the only reasons to take kids away. The bill also would make it easier for relatives to foster children who can’t remain safely with their parents.

The bill, called the Keeping Families Together Act (HB 1227), was the brainchild of a group of more than a dozen parents, foster parents, lawyers, foster care agencies and other advocates who started meeting last summer under the guise of “turning foster care on its head.” While marchers were loudly protesting the deaths of Black women and men at the hands of police, this group was quietly strategizing how to overhaul another institution disproportionately harming families of color: the child welfare system.

A key goal of the legislation is reducing the overrepresentation in foster care of Black and Indigenous children, who are about twice as likely as their white peers to be placed in care, according to a 2019 state analysis. Sponsors hope it would also cut the total number of kids, now around 7,300, in the state’s overburdened foster care system.

Instead of paying strangers to care for their children in foster care, if the state helped the parents at risk because of poverty, mental illness or addiction, many of those children and families would fare better, the act’s proponents say. Most victims of child maltreatment, 61%, experience neglect but no other mistreatment, according to 2019 federal data.

“Poverty should never be a reason for removing children from homes,” said state Rep. Lillian Ortiz-Self, D-Everett, the bill’s prime sponsor in the House. An amended version of her bill has passed the Senate and awaits a final vote in the House.

Ortiz-Self is also a school mental health counselor who works with young people who have been taken from their parents. “I have seen their anguish and trauma… and their desire to be reunified with their families,” she said. “Which screams to me that we should be doing everything in our power to make sure that is the absolute last resort.”

A woman grabs some clothing from another person who is unloading a car.

Karen Osborne (right), a mother whose children have been taken away from her based on social workers’ concerns about her “mental capacity,” gets some of her belongings from Gina Wassemiller, a social service worker with the Office of Public Defense. Wassemiller, also known as a “parent ally,” previously saw her own children removed by the state. She now supports other parents in the same situation. Some may stand to benefit from the Keeping Families Together Act, a bill in the Washington State Legislature that would tighten standards for removing children from their parents. As part of a parent support group, Osborne also helps other parents involved with the child welfare system advocate for themselves. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

Current law gives police, hospitals, child protective services and courts “a ton of discretion” to remove children, said Tara Urs, civil practice and policy director for the King County Department of Public Defense, which represents parents who have had their children removed. It’s “a wide-open door,” Urs said.

The bill would limit that discretion by requiring evidence that removal “is necessary to prevent imminent physical harm,” including harm from neglect.

The model for that language comes from the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act, which sought to reduce the common practice of removing Native American children from their families and tribes and placing them with white families.

The Keeping Families Together Act also spells out specific circumstances that do not, by themselves, constitute imminent physical harm, including poverty, isolation, the parent’s age, crowded housing, substance abuse, mental illness, a parent’s or child’s disability, or “nonconforming social behavior.” And judges must return children to their parents unless there is evidence that conditions in the home are actually causing imminent physical harm.

These proposals are driven in part by a growing recognition that the foster care system is failing many youths, and that reform efforts in the past have made only marginal improvements.

In recent years, hundreds of Washington foster children have been kept in hotels and offices and sent to out-of-state institutions with histories of abusing children. The frequent moves that many foster children experience, research shows, contribute to worsening behavior problems.

Locally and nationally, there is a growing consensus that foster care is overused and more emphasis should be placed on keeping families intact. The 2018 Family First Prevention Services Act supports that goal nationwide by allowing states to redirect federal foster care matching funds toward family preservation.

“The nation and states have been somewhat cavalier about the traumatic impacts of removal,” said Frank Ordway, chief of staff with the Washington Department of Children, Youth & Families, which oversees child protective services and foster care.

Decisions about whether to remove a child, Ordway said, have largely been driven by immediate safety concerns, along with avoiding lawsuits should the department fail to act and a child is harmed. The bill would require more consideration of long-term impacts to children, he said.

“You have to weigh, can we provide some more immediate support to this family and keep them together, versus breaking them apart, putting them into therapy, and then trying to put them back together?” Ordway said. “What this bill is trying to do is make us think a little more, take a little bit more time in those beginning steps, before inextricable damage is done.”

A second major provision of the act seeks to tackle racial disparities by reducing the barriers for grandparents and other relatives and close friends to care for children.

Families of color are more likely to have had contact with the criminal justice system and thus are more likely to be rejected as potential relative caregivers. As a result, Urs explained, “the child welfare system imports the structural racism of the criminal legal system.”

Under the proposed legislation, the state would have to prove that a relative is unfit to care for a child, rather than relatives having to prove their fitness to the state, Urs said. A delayed background check, a home that is too small or a relative’s uncertainty about adopting a child would no longer disqualify them. And courts could order the Department of Children, Youth & Families to provide financial or other supports to relatives to ensure their home is safe.

That “brings me great elation,” said Shrounda Selivanoff, director of public policy with the Children’s Home Society of Washington and a member of the working group that helped craft the Keeping Families Together Act.

Selivanoff said that when her grandson was born three years ago, DCYF initially objected to placing the baby with her. That’s because one of Selivanoff’s children had been removed at birth more than a decade earlier. But Selivanoff had completed treatment for a drug addiction and her daughter had come home after two and a half years.

“Who I was 10 years ago doesn’t say who I am today,” Selivanoff said. “So we are shifting the burden back to the state to say, ‘What makes me unsafe today?’”

Equally important, the bill would provide financial assistance for relatives who care for kids. These extended-family members tend to be older and poorer than licensed foster parents but receive far less support from the state. Kin can get $363 a month for one child and about $100 more for each additional child through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. Payments to licensed foster parents start at $672 per child and reach $1,612 a month for older children with complex needs.

If relatives indicate they are interested in becoming licensed, the bill would require the state to start the process within 10 days, issue an initial license and begin paying them the same amount they pay licensed foster parents. A second bill being considered this session (HB 5151) would allow DCYF to issue “child-specific” licenses for relatives, thereby drawing on federal matching funds to pay those relatives.

These payments to relatives and other costs to implement the Keeping Families Together Act will be significant, but lawmakers avoided having to budget for them this year by delaying the act’s implementation until July 2023.

Other child welfare bills before the Legislature

As Washington confronts an overburdened foster care system, lawmakers are taking action to reform the system in ways that emphasize supporting families over removing children.

The most consequential bill, the Keeping Families Together Act, would increase standards the state must follow before removing children from their parents.

Here is a summary of other child welfare bills before the Legislature (unless otherwise noted, bills still have time to pass this session):

Attorneys for children in foster care

HB 1219 significantly expands children’s rights to an attorney when they have been removed from their parents. Currently, children in most counties are not automatically entitled to legal representation until they are age 12, or until six months after the court agrees to move toward terminating their parents’ rights. Phased in through 2026, the bill requires the state to provide attorneys for children 7 and younger at the time the state petitions to terminate their parents’ rights, and for older children shortly after they are removed from their parents.

School-based support for foster youth

HB 5184 requires each school building to have a designated point of contact to coordinate services for foster youth, who have worse educational outcomes than their peers. Previous legislation required school districts to have foster care liaisons, but those individuals cover multiple schools and typically have other full-time responsibilities.

Baby courts

SB 5331 authorizes superior courts to create specialized court programs for children under age 3 at the time their families enter the child welfare system. These early childhood court programs or baby courts provide more frequent review hearings and visitation and other intensive supports to the family.

Parent-child visitation

HB 1194 requires that parents are able to visit their children within 72 hours of the children being taken into Department of Children, Youth & Families’ custody. Ongoing parent-child visits are to be unsupervised unless supervision is needed to ensure a child’s safety.

Increasing payments to some foster parents

HB 1347 sought to raise the maintenance payments to foster parents who care for children who have extreme behavioral challenges, such as a history of self-harm or aggression toward others, or who can’t be around other children. Payments would have been at least one-third of the $12,804 paid to licensed group home providers and renegotiated every six months. The bill did not pass out of committee and is dead for this session.

Feature image at top of page: Karen Osborne, a mother whose children have been taken away from her over the years by state social workers, at Hauge Homestead Park in Everett.  As part of a parent support group, Osborne now helps other parents involved with the child welfare system advocate for themselves. (Photo: Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

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.

2 Comments

  • Avatar Kathern Cater says:

    They took my great grandson from us. He was not abused or around drugs. My granddaughter gave us power of attorney over him. Then arrested her because we had her child and was out of town. They said she had something in her hair but passed her urine test..
    They put a 300,000 dollar bond on her then threatened us. When we got back in town we gave up our greatgrandson who is 9 months old. And they call this justice over they said Marijuana. They already took our other 3 greatgrandchildren giving one to a father who shot his dad with a 9mm. When I said something to Judge Tom Brown he asked if we have guns and I said yes hunting rifles we keep locked in a safe. He said we’ll there you go. I want my 4 greatgrandchildren home. We are blood kin and passed there drug test and home study. What can we do to get them home.

  • Avatar Angel Qasem says:

    My granddaughters are in foster care in Kentucky and they are doing exactly opposite of this.

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