Foster-care system still struggling
The state Children's Administration is under fire for failing to meet obligations to foster children. Child-welfare experts say the agency's struggles have to do with headstrong officials and overwhelmed staff; leaders say the agency is on track and steadily improving.
Seattle Times staff reporter
The Braam agreementUnder the 2004 settlement, the Children's Administration promised to make scores of changes to improve foster care and to track its work statistically. Although the agency has made considerable progress in some areas, a judge recently ordered it to keep its promises in four key areas:
It must visit each foster child monthly.
It must step up efforts to ensure siblings see each other twice a month.
It must provide prompt health exams for kids entering foster care.
It must lower caseloads, shooting for a goal of one caseworker per 18 children (or eight special-needs children).
A month ago, a Whatcom County judge told the state Children's Administration to quit complaining and start acting.
"You need to go do whatever it takes," Superior Court Judge Charles R. Snyder said in ordering the agency to meet four specific goals.
They were the same goals the agency had promised to meet as part of a 2004 settlement agreement, including ensuring that kids in foster care get monthly caseworker visits. The agency has made progress. Yet despite badgering from foster children's lawyers, and the appointment of an expert panel to see it through the process, the agency failed to keep all of its promises.
The judge's order was "a huge indictment of the system," said state Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, a former foster father.
Earlier this year, the Office of the Family and Children's Ombudsman had so many concerns that its director, Mary Meinig, gave her first closed-door legislative briefing. Among other things, she told lawmakers that child fatalities were on the rise and complaint-ridden foster homes were allowed to remain open.
Meinig, a neutral, nonpartisan investigator into complaints about the Children's Administration, later wrote in a memo that it was "imperative" the problems be addressed immediately.
The question is: How did we get here?
When she campaigned for governor four years ago, Christine Gregoire promised to make children a priority. Moreover, as attorney general, she oversaw the signing of the agreement with which the judge found the state had failed to comply.
Child advocates have been asking: Where is the Gregoire administration now?
A spokeswoman for the governor said child safety remains a top priority.
But Dino Rossi, Gregoire's likely opponent in the November election, sees the problems at the Children's Administration as evidence that a change is needed at the top.
A large, complex agency
First, an acknowledgment: The Children's Administration is an extremely complicated piece of machinery. It is pushed and pulled by courts and legislators. Its day-to-day work is glued together with well-meaning but imperfect statutes and policies. It deals with drug addicts and pedophiles, nonprofits and federal agencies.
Then there's its sheer size: Part of the Department of Social and Health Services, the Children's Administration has an annual budget of $594 million, nearly 2,900 employees and about 10,000 children in foster care.
If the machine falters, a child could be beaten, starved, sexually abused.
All that said, it was clear in the 1990s that the machine was sputtering. A group of foster children who were bounced from home to home filed suit against the state in 1998. One girl, Jessica Braam, had 34 placements. The case, which became known as Braam, was settled in 2004.
A panel of national experts turned the settlement into an elaborate blueprint for improving foster care, which included dozens of steps that would be phased in over seven years.
Cheryl Stephani took over the agency after the Braam settlement was signed. When asked recently if she had "bought into" the Braam agreement, Stephani would say only that the agency was "working very hard" to meet its expectations.
Critics, however, use words like "resistance" and "pushback."
Casey Trupin, a lawyer for the foster children, said agency leaders weren't taking the agreement seriously enough. For example, Braam requires that the agency step up its face-to-face visits with foster kids. It had already missed several interim goals, and as of July it was nowhere near its requirement of visiting 95 percent of kids monthly. In fact, it won't even have a policy requiring these visits until September.
Then there's the data problem. The agency still hasn't provided all the information it promised. Whether it can't do so or simply won't do so is a matter of debate.
Instead of seeing the expert panelists as partners who could help in the transformation, the agency sees them as adversaries, several experts interviewed by The Times said.
Too much change?
Gregoire's office initially declined requests for an interview, instead releasing a statement saying she and the agency are devoted to child welfare. Later, executive policy adviser Kari Burrell, a social-services expert herself, made the case that what the agency is doing is bigger than Braam.
The settlement agreement, she pointed out, deals only with kids in foster care. But the governor is concerned for the safety of all children, including those who may be victims of abuse but aren't in the system.
For example, Gregoire ordered the agency to respond to most child-abuse complaints within 24 hours. It used to take 10 days, so the transformation was radical. Repeat incidents of child abuse have decreased, Stephani said.
Trupin acknowledged that the agency submitted ramped-up plans last week that indicate it's taking the Braam agreement more seriously since the court's ruling.
Stephani and Burrell tick off other major changes: They have hired hundreds of workers and greatly reduced caseloads. They still haven't reached the Braam caseload goals, but they have met many other goals in the agreement.
And they are implementing a new "practice model" and a new philosophy that asks caseworkers to focus on engaging whole families and working from their strengths. That means, for example, getting troubled families to think back to a time when they were stable, then trying to re-create whatever was working for them then. It may sound ephemeral, but in reality it's a huge undertaking.
And that, some say, is part of the problem. Instead of mirroring the lengthy Braam requirements, Stephani added new ones.
Nancy Taft, who spent 38 years as a child-welfare worker before retiring last year as a regional manager, said before she left, new policies were rolled out monthly. It was too much, too fast.
"I had people in my office crying," she said. "These were good, experienced caseworkers who'd been around for a long time and lived through a lot."
Stephani recognizes that workers are struggling. She's asked their union to help find ways to ease their loads.
Complaints on the rise
Last February, Meinig, the ombudsman, told key legislators that the number of complaints to her office was ballooning. Some involved children in foster care, and thus came under Braam, but her concerns were broader than that. Most troubling, she said, was that child fatalities were increasing. Eighteen children who were the subject of open child-abuse or -neglect complaints had died in the previous six months. Twelve died in the same period a year earlier.
There were also numerous worrisome incidents that didn't result in death. One of those, Meinig later said, involved a 12-year-old Pierce County boy who lived with his grandparents. They were suspected of abusing him. Using Stephani's philosophy of engaging families, workers and relatives came up with a plan: The boy would stay with the grandparents, but he had to live out back, in a travel trailer with no running water. Police, who arrested the grandparents last summer after the boy said he suffered further abuse, were appalled.
The agency acknowledged it made an error. But Meinig and others worried that the family-focused policy wasn't properly understood by workers.
In her memo, Meinig wrote that alleged perpetrators were invited to help decide where abused children should live, and that relatives weren't being properly scrutinized.
"We addressed specific concerns that [the Children's Administration] practice lacks common sense, is compromising child safety," she wrote.
Burrell, while acknowledging the system falls short of perfect, said that Meinig's job is to look at complaints; thus it wasn't surprising that she would find them.
A campaign issue
Meanwhile, the Children's Administration is becoming a campaign issue. Republicans have begun highlighting problems.
The Building Industry Association of Washington, which supports Rossi, ran a radio ad noting that Gregoire vetoed nearly $3 million in Braam-related funding (failing to mention that the agency's budget has increased $120 million since 2006).
In addition, it's expected that the Legislature will consider splitting the Children's Administration from DSHS in the next session. Supporters of the idea say Children's won't have to compete for funding with all the other DSHS agencies if it's a separate agency. The idea has come up before, but this time there appears to be a big push.
As for Braam, Burrell said, "the governor does want to move ahead ... but not to the exclusion of the other items on her priority list," including broader child safety.
Those pushing for faster progress, she said, will just have to be patient.
Maureen O'Hagan: 206-464-2562 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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