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Friday, May 19, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Foster parents move toward joining union

Seattle Times staff reporter

The pay is lousy, the hours are terrible, and they don't get much respect — foster parents have been saying this for years.

Now they're trying to do something about it. For the past few months, foster parents in the state have been working quietly on a plan to join the Washington Federation of State Employees and make Washington the first state in the country where foster parents will be part of a union.

"I think being able to speak together has some benefits," said Steve Baxter, co-president of the Foster Parents Association of Washington State, which has been leading the effort.

The federation, the largest state government labor union, also represents state Children's Administration employees.

Cheryl Stephani, assistant secretary of the Children's Administration, was notified by e-mail of the plan last week, but her department declined to comment on it Thursday.

The e-mail, signed by Baxter's group, said the state foster-care system "is in crisis." Turnover among foster parents is high, which means children don't get the stability they need. Foster parents, meanwhile, "feel unprepared and unsupported" by the state to do a job that everyone agrees is crucial, the e-mail said.

Washington's child-welfare system is already under pressure to reform, under the terms of a lawsuit settlement calling for a massive overhaul of foster care. The suit detailed the cases of foster children who were bounced through dozens of homes, separated from siblings and denied basic services.

In some cases, children with serious medical conditions or mental-health problems were placed with untrained foster parents; sometimes caseworkers kept these problems secret from the foster parents, virtually ensuring the children would be moved once again.

Under the settlement, the state agreed to provide more training and help for foster parents. In March, a panel overseeing the settlement found the state had not met those requirements.

Karen Jorgenson, executive director of the National Foster Parent Association, said it's likely foster parents in other states will take notice of the move to unionize.

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"I think you'll see it popping up in other states," she said.

In Washington, about 6,000 foster parents care for some 9,600 children at any given time. Pay ranges from $374 to $525 per month, depending on the child's age. Parents get no health insurance or holidays and are on call round-the-clock.

One of the biggest complaints from foster parents is that no one listens to them, according to those who work in the field. Instead, they're treated like baby-sitters, said Bill Grimm, a senior attorney with the National Center for Youth Law.

"I believe their voices are ignored; yet they are the ones that know the most about these children," he said. "I'm not saying they're always right and that their opinions should prevail, but that their opinions should be considered."

At this point, it's still unclear exactly what the unionization efforts will bring. The union said it will announce details May 30.

The concept of unionizing people who aren't employees has been well-tested in Washington. Over the past few years, home health-care and child-care workers joined unions and were granted the right to collective bargaining.

Maureen O'Hagan: 206-464-2562 or mohagan@seattletimes.com

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