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Uphill Slog: Reforming DSHS to keep foster kids safe

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. Credit: 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.

But there was progress. The agency now sends trained locators out to search for runaways and involve the youngsters in developing more personalized case plans. Multiple foster placements have declined, reducing emotional trauma for children and keeping them in familiar schools. To improve the education of foster children, the agency has partnered with Treehouse, which maintains strong ties to personnel at different schools and has good strategies for keeping foster kids engaged in their classes. Additionally, Children's Administration is placing more siblings together and is better preparing foster youth for the transition to adult independence.

At the final hearing, Children's Administration deputy assistant secretary Randy Hart conceded that the agency “took a long time to accept reality,” but said that with new panel-driven structures in place, the division has become “a self-correcting learning environment.”

Overall, Children's Administration is now in full compliance with 6 of 21 reforms, and in nearly full compliance with 6 more. But 9 agreed-on reforms (including visiting monthly with children to assess their safety and health, reducing caseworker caseloads, informing and training foster parents, ensuring twice-monthly contact between separated siblings, addressing the issues of runaways and meeting the needs of medically fragile children) are still not on track for compliance by the end of 2013, said attorney Trupin. The settlement agreement will expire at that time, and plaintiff lawyers are deciding how to proceed.

"The only thing we’re absolutely sure of is that the agreement won't go away," Trupin said. "Reform has been a very labor-intensive effort, but well worthwhile, and the agreement has played a major role."

Meanwhile, a collaboration between DSHS and Seattle-based Partners for Our Children, which the legislature recently initiated by passing HB 1774, will begin developing measurable indicators for reforms essential to the safety, placement stability, and well-being of thousands of foster kids in Washington state. Kids like K.J., I.H., S.S., T.O. and Jessica Braam.

Kids at Risk coverage is made possible by a grant from Ballmer Family Giving. Go here for more on Kids at Risk.

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