State wants out of settlement on foster care supervision

DSHS rejects court oversight under a landmark case to improve foster care. Proponents of the settlement disagree.

The state believes it is ready to continue reforms of its foster care operations without court supervision.

But the plaintiffs in the court ruling that set up that supervision believe otherwise. Late this week, the plaintiffs in the Braam v. Washington case filed a notice in Whatcom County Superior Court that they intend to keep the original 2004 settlement agreement intact.

Braam v. Washington is a 1998 lawsuit  that charged the state Department of Social and Health Services was not meeting its constitutional duties in providing proper foster care. Jessica Braam was one of the  plaintiffs. She had lived in 15 foster homes between the ages of 2 and 12, which was one reason for the original lawsuit. The National Center for Youth Law and Columbia Legal Services were the plaintiffs' attorneys.

Part of that litigation's 2004 settlement had both sides set up a panel of child welfare experts to oversee reform of the division's foster care operations. The panel supervises DSHS' efforts tackling a list of 21 improvements. A Sept. 30 DSHS report said 14 of those 21 goals have been met, with another four within 15 percent of being completed.

Last week, DSHS announced that it is ready to continue working on those improvements without court supervision. 

"We now are in a place where we can excel with traditional and legislative oversight," said Jennifer Strus, assistant secretary for DSHS Children's Administration, in a press release. DSHS noted that it has spent $910,000 handling the legal aspects of the Braam settlement since 2006, and believes the future potential Braam legal funds would be better applied directly to foster care services. DSHS proposes that the Legislature and the Independent Office of the Children and Family Ombudsman will be sufficient supervisors of its effort. 

Strus said two of the 21 objectives have been unachievable despite the department's best efforts. These are trimming the number of foster kids who are runaways, and shrinking the lengths of time they are runaways.

"We know our work is not done. Our commitment to improving safety, permanency and well-being for children continues," Strus said.

Casey Trupin, an attorney for Columbia Legal Services, said that while DSHS has made improvements in foster care, the court settlement has been the prime reason that the state has focused on making those improvements.

"There was no way to hold them accountable before the order, and it would be difficult to do it (after the settlement agreement) is lifted," Trupin said.

"It's not about trust," he added. "It's about focus to make sure everyone is on the same page."

He added that the goals that the state has been trying to achieve were the minimum standards set by the settlement agreement, meaning the state has failed to reach even the minimum targets on seven of the goals.

The earliest that this issue can be argued in Whatcom County Superior Court is in January.

John Stang is a longtime Inland Northwest newspaper reporter who earned a Masters of Communications in Digital Media degree at the University of Washington. He can be reached by writing editor@crosscut.com.


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