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Uphill Slog: Reforming DSHS to keep foster kids safe

One panel of experts has spent nine years overseeing foster care fixes. How far have they come?
Child alone on school bus

Child alone on school bus Photo: Flickr user woodleywonderworks

Braam Oversight Panel chair John A. Landsverk (standing) talks with plaintiff attorneys Timothy Farris and Casey Trupin. Attorney William H. Grimm is in the foreground.

Braam Oversight Panel chair John A. Landsverk (standing) talks with plaintiff attorneys Timothy Farris and Casey Trupin. Attorney William H. Grimm is in the foreground. Judy Lightfoot

The stories break your heart. The state had placed Jessica Braam, who entered the foster care system at the age of two, in 15 different homes by the time she turned 12. T.O. lived in ten different homes between the ages of six months and three years. When he was two, he was needlessly separated from his brother. S.S. was placed with untrained foster parents who punished him by feeding him hot peppers and “twisting his nipples until they bled.” I.H. was raped by another foster child in the home she was sent to. K.J. was placed with a grandfather who lived in a van and was a known child molester.

And they are just five of the 13 children on whose behalf Braam v. Washington, a class action complaint against the state, was filed. The complaint charged that in failing to follow professional standards of practice, Washington state had violated the Constitutional rights of children in foster care. Specifically, the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) had subjected children to multiple placements and unsafe homes, denied them mental and physical health care and separated them from siblings unnecessarily.

Further, the complaint argued, the state’s treatment of these 13 children reflected the typical treatment of fully one-third of Washington’s approximately 10,000 foster children.

Braam v. Washington, filed by Bellingham attorney Timothy Farris, William H. Grimm of the National Center for Youth Law and Casey Trupin of Columbia Legal Services, sparked what became a nine-year project to reform the Washington state foster care system, operated by the Children’s Administration at DSHS.

In 2004, after the case was settled through mediation, parties to the lawsuit chose a panel of child welfare experts to oversee reform of the division's foster care operations. The Braam Panel completed its work early this week with the same five members originally convened, despite frequent travel demands during the nine years of hearings, on the four who live in other states.

The panel and Children's Administration decided on six reform goals: placement stability, home safety and appropriateness, improved mental health services for children, keeping siblings together, training and informing foster parents, and better services for teenagers.

The panel and CA then collaborated to develop benchmarks, action steps, measurable outcomes and professional standards on which the panel would monitor agency compliance and progress. Plaintiff attorneys regularly attended panel hearings, and child advocates as well as the general public were invited.

Media coverage of the panel’s early years highlighted the snail’s pace of reform and the quarrels that bubbled up (many stories are linked here). The Children's Administration protested that it was being asked to achieve too much in too little time, with insufficient staff and diminishing funds from the state Legislature.

Two years into the reform process, fewer than a third of the agreed-upon action steps had been completed on time, according to a March 2006 Seattle Times story. Administrators objected to specified outcomes they said were badly designed. Plaintiff attorneys retorted that the agency had participated in shaping them, and that the case would be returned to the courts if leaders failed to show greater commitment and kept on missing deadlines.

In 2008, the case did go back to court, where the judge ruled that the process must speed up. At that point, said panel member Jeanine Long, Children's Administration started making progress. “They realized, ‘We’ve got to do this.’” Still, she added, it’s hard to ensure that reforms reach “all the way down the chain of people.”  As a Washington state senator, Long had had spent many years sponsoring child welfare bills that never saw effective action after being passed.

At this week's final hearings, after which the panel disbanded as scheduled, progress reports from Children's Administration sparked further contention. Ongoing failures to inform foster parents of the needs of children placed in their care astonished panel members. Monthly caseworker visits to foster children in their homes were still spotty. The disturbing rate at which children ran away from foster placements remained relatively unchanged.


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Comments:

Posted Fri, Jun 28, 6:54 a.m. Inappropriate

Important story for the public to digest and understand. We need tenacious and dedicated advocates for children in foster care.

Portland has the very excellent Juvenile Rights Project that has inspired protective legislation.

I am full of hope that Partners for Our Children will produce positive results for our state's most vulnerable young citizens.

gaia

Posted Fri, Jun 28, 10:31 a.m. Inappropriate

This issue never seems to get better. Just a never ending horror story. On a larger plain I recomend that we abolish DSHS and break it down into it's componate parts. Perhaps at that point the services they are required to provide the public at the tax payers expense might actually beguin to work. And most certainly the follow on agencies would be much more responsive. I have become convinced that this 900 lb behemoth will never impove and always only be concerned with itself.

twisted8

Posted Fri, Jun 28, 2:38 p.m. Inappropriate

Judy, nice piece on an important subject. Thank you, but I have to ask, can the State be a substitute parent? is it even faintly plausible for that to be a successfully solution? I am assuming that these abandoned or mistreated children are offered to adoptive parents. At least I hope so. The adoption process is, I am told, quite rigorous and it embodies a commitment on the part of the adoptive parent (and the child, to some extent) that seems far preferable to the foster parent arrangement. How did the State ever get into this infinitely complex and demanding blend of love and science? DSHS can be depended upon to keep the legal professionals fully employed --with both plaintiff and defendant attorney paid for by the State-- on into the next millennium.

kieth

Posted Fri, Jun 28, 6:45 p.m. Inappropriate

“took a long time to accept reality,”

One has to wonder how many children paid for that time lag.

The basic problem; we still have the same bureaucrats and their lackeys polluting the system, yet we're told and expected to believe that training, seminars, and panels will prevent and break the cycle of DSHS incompetence and child abuse within the system. Not a chance. We'll see Haley's Comet a couple of times before that occurs.

in the end, the state has failed to provide a decent education and ensure the safety of children. Somebody remind me why the Democrats continue to support this organization.

Djinn

Posted Fri, Jun 28, 7:47 p.m. Inappropriate

DSHS has been having major problems since I became aware of them, and their constant missteps in the 1980's.

How many children have to be abused, harmed, starved, or killed before taxpayers say "This is revolting. DSHS isn't doing a good job."

Why would a review/study of DSHS take 9 years anyway? Trained by bureaucrats?

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