Retired judge hopes Center will help improve child-welfare system
The Center for Children and Youth Justice, founded by retired Supreme Court Justice Bobbe Bridge, hopes to change the state's child-welfare and juvenile-justice systems.
Seattle Times staff reporter
By retired Justice Bobbe Bridge's count, there have been 1,957 recommendations from expert committees over the last decade on ways to improve Washington's child-welfare system.
Yes, she's actually counted.
Some were implemented, but more, she said, were not.
"We have these wonderful groups that come together and great recommendations come out, and the majority of them never see the light of day," Bridge said recently. "I don't think it's malevolence, and I don't think it's incompetence. It's that there's nobody in each of these agencies who is responsible for doing it."
Bridge hopes a nonprofit she formed before retiring from the state Supreme Court last December will be the "nudge" that pushes to make the child-welfare system, along with the juvenile-justice system, better. Creating a database of all those recommendations was among the group's first projects. Analyzing them is next.
The organization, called the Center for Children and Youth Justice, began with an award of $10 million from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, along with money from the Gates Foundation and others.
The Center, as Bridge calls it, will use that money to administer grants for promising programs across the state, help determine which approaches deliver the best results, and urge legislators, courts and the state Department of Social and Health Services to implement them.
Easy, right? Not exactly.
The very fact that there are 1,957 recommendations, said state Rep. Ruth Kagi, D-Seattle, chairwoman of the Early Learning and Children's Services Committee, "is a part of the problem as well. We keep going in different directions."
So where to begin?
Bridge, who was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1999 and served as a King County Superior Court judge for 10 years before that, starts with the power of law.
When the state removes a child from an abusive parent, the law says the state's job is to do whatever is in that child's "best interest."
By the same token, when a child becomes involved with the juvenile-justice system, the state's main goal is to turn his or her behavior around, not to punish. In both systems, children's lives are supposed to get better.
"These are the promises we make for these system kids," Bridge said. "And we fail miserably."
She noted that kids who've been in foster care or through the juvenile-justice system generally have lower high-school graduation rates than their peers. They are also more likely to have mental-health and addiction issues and less likely to get and hold a job, among other measures.
"Are we making things worse rather than better?" Bridge wonders.
Is it best to be tough on juvenile offenders or to give them more chances? Do we demand too much of neglectful parents or too little? Which programs are best? There are as many answers as there are experts.
"We really need broad agreement on what are the main issues," Kagi said. She and others think Bridge and the Center are in the perfect position to build that agreement and guide the systems where they need to go.
The organization is unique in this state, in that it will focus on the overlapping systems of child welfare and juvenile justice, and it won't provide the actual services, so Bridge hopes it will be viewed as neutral.
Bridge began working on children's issues years ago as a graduate student in political science.
"She is smart, compassionate and a tireless advocate for improving the lives of young people," said Cheryl Stephani, the DSHS assistant secretary for Children's Services.
The Center gets praise from the other side of the table, too.
"She knows ... how to bring people together," said Jana Heyd, assistant director at the Society of Counsel Representing Accused Persons, a public-defender agency that represents parents and children involved in legal matters.
Bridge's record isn't perfect, of course. In 2003, she was charged with drunken-driving and hit-and-run after sideswiping a parked truck and then trying to drive away.
She, like many first-time offenders, agreed to a deferred prosecution and was required to undergo counseling. The Commission on Judicial Conduct also reprimanded her.
By 2005 and 2006, when the MacArthur Foundation was considering where to distribute juvenile-justice grants, Bridge was among those urging it to choose Washington.
She pulled together a group that met every Sunday for months to discuss the issues. MacArthur awarded Washington the grant and named the Center, which had just formed, as the lead entity to administer it.
Bridge, who remembers proudly her time hearing delinquency and dependency cases in King County, was so excited about the Center's work that she retired from the Supreme Court before her term was up. She's thrilled to be focusing once again on kids.
"I loved being in juvenile court," she said. "See, that's where there is hope."
Maureen O'Hagan: 206-464-2562 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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