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Fixing WA foster care, one bill at a time

35 percent of teens who "age out" of the system wind up on the streets. Credit: Flickr: Angelo González

Six foster care-related bills went into the Washington State Legislature's hopper last session. Three passed. Two were set aside because they were duplicative. The sixth stalled, but has a chance at passing in 2014.

"We're making progress,” says Rep. Ruth Kagi, D-Seattle, a longtime advocate for at-risk kids. “But we still have a long way to go."

Kagi and her fellow at-risk advocates both inside and outside state government dodged a few financial bullets in the last legislative session. State lawmakers managed to hold funding for foster care programs steady at roughly $190 million for the next (2013-2015) biennium. Most of that money will go to the 5,000-plus foster households around the state. A Republican-oriented Senate budget had called for cuts to that spending total, but negotiations with the Democratic-dominated House restored the funding.

A good thing, says Kagi: "If we ended up with the Senate budget, there would have been a lot of damage."


Rep. Ruth Kagi. Credit: www.leg.wa.gov

Indeed, lawmakers can report some progress. Both House and Senate overwhelmingly passed House Bill 1566 (from Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle), which requires that a parent, foster parent, a relative or another person be designated as a formal education liaison to make sure that every foster child has an advocate in the education system. Lawmakers also enacted Senate Bill 5389 (from Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane), which mandates that siblings who are placed in separate foster homes be allowed to visit each other as often as possible. (Families of four or more siblings are more likely to be split among two or more homes.) Billig’s bill passed both chambers overwhelmingly. A version of it (HB 1204) from Rep. Mary Helen Roberts, D-Mukilteo, passed the House unanimously, but was set aside to avoid duplication.

Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, and a group of House Democrats intend to keep pushing for passage of House Bill 1285, which would require the state to provide foster kids with an attorney in family court cases where the child's parents have had their parental rights terminated. Right now, the appointment of attorneys in such cases is at the judge’s discretion and varies across the state: King County provides a lawyer for children 12 and older; the Benton-Franklin county system for kids eight and older; judges in several counties don't appoint attorneys for kids at all. Washington ranks close to last in the nation when it comes to providing lawyers for children whose parents' rights have been terminated.

HB 1285 passed the House handily but stalled in the Senate over concerns about the extra cost of all those lawyers, which is significant. A Pierce County official put the pricetag as high as $500,000 for Pierce County alone. Rep. Goodman estimates the statewide cost at about $1.5 million. “When you're cutting services, finding more money for attorneys doesn’t have much appeal," says Rep. Kagi, who supports Goodman's bill. Nevertheless, House committees have been holding meetings this month on how to proceed.

For at-risk youth advocates, one of the most critical goals is to raise the age ceiling for foster kids from 18 to 21. The extra three years of support help teenagers transition from high school to college or technical schools and just get their feet on the ground as independent adults. Reps. Kagi and Roberts note that kids who get tossed out of the foster care system at age 18 are much more likely to wind up in jail or on the streets. A September 2013 report prepared for the Washington State Department of Commerce, Community Services and Housing Division found that 35 percent of foster care youth "experienced homelessness or housing instability in the year after aging out."

Bills that tackle this expansion have been working their way through the legislative process in a kind of piecemeal fashion. In 2011, 207 18-year-olds qualified for extended foster care because they were still in secondary school. Legislative extensions for kids enrolled in college or vocational school bumped that number up to 265 in the first seven months of this year.

Two additional measures aimed at raising the age ceiling were introduced by Rep. Roberts and Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle. Murray's (Senate Bill 5405) included 18-year-olds who are dealing with various barriers to full-time employment such as a lack of proper training. It passed both chambers easily. A similar bill from Rep. Roberts (House Bill 1302) passed the House with ease, but failed to get scheduled for a floor vote in the Senate before the session ended.

The advocacy community seems content with this incrementalism — for now. “We have made great progress," says Jim Theofelis, executive director of Seattle's Mockingbird Society. "But there are still youth who age out at 18 without any support, too often resulting in homelessness. This is abhorrent and must be corrected."

Reps. Roberts and Kagi are working to secure foster care expansions for two more teen classifications: 18-year-olds who are under-employed, and those with significant medical problems or developmental disabilities. At the moment, both types of teen exit foster care as soon as they turn 18.

Both Kagi and Roberts like their odds for 2014. Buoyed by their success in the last session, the two lawmakers believe that legislation mandating legal representation and allowing the remaining groups of 18-year-olds to stay in foster care will be forthcoming in 2014.

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