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A new battle brewing over Braam

The notorious 1998 case mandated reforms in the state's foster care system. But advocates for foster kids contend the reforms aren't happening fast enough.
Is the state fulfilling its obligations to foster kids? Columbia legal Services doesn't think so.

Is the state fulfilling its obligations to foster kids? Columbia legal Services doesn't think so. Credit: Josh Pesavento/Flickr

On May 2, Seattle's Columbia Legal Services filed a detailed motion in Whatcom County Superior Court on behalf of the state's foster children. It asked the court to enforce the 2004 Braam settlement.

In an email announcing the move, Casey Trupin, Coordinating Attorney for Children and Youth Project at Columbia Legal Services, explained that the motion "asks the Court to order the Department [of Social and Health Services] to make more aggressive efforts to comply with nine agreed-to, but as-of-yet-unmet [Braam] reforms." In short, wrote Trupin, "the State’s position is that it should be let out of the settlement prior to fully complying with almost half of the agreement."

Braam v. Washington is the 1998 lawsuit that accused the state Department of Social and Health Services of not meeting its constitutional duties to provide proper foster care. Jessica Braam, one of the 13 plaintiffs, had lived in 15 foster homes between the ages of 2 and 12, which was one impetus for the original suit. The National Center for Youth Law and Columbia Legal Services represented the plaintiffs.

As part of the 2004 settlement, both sides agreed to set up a panel of child welfare experts that would oversee reform of the state's foster care operations. The panel supervises efforts by DSHS to implement a list of 21 improvements. According to a Sept. 30 2013, DSHS report, 14 of the 21 improvements have been met; another four are within 15 percent of being completed.

Last week, the plaintiffs filed paperwork to require the state to complete the unfinished reforms. “While progress has been made, many of the promised reforms have yet to be accomplished,” wrote Columbia Legal Services attorney Mary Van Cleve in a press release. "These reforms represent the minimum level of adequate care for foster children, and so we have no choice but to ask the court to enforce compliance. The State agreed to achieve these reforms by the end of 2013, but failed to do so."

"Much has been accomplished because of the court oversight and without continued enforcement it is my fear that the rest of the remaining benchmarks will go unmet," said Jessica Braam's mother Vicki in the same news release. "The state owes it to the thousands of children like my daughter Jessica to complete this job.”

Not surprisingly, DSHS took a different view: “The Administration is in full compliance in 13 of the 21 Braam outcomes, as shown in a report issued in March 2014," countered Jennifer Strus, DSHS's assistant secretary for Children's Administration. (Links to that report are here and here.)

Strus contended DSHS is in substantial compliance with most other of the Braam reform measures, and that two of them will be difficult to meet because of how they are measured. Those two are the number of youth who have run away from their foster homes and the length of time they are at large. Strus said DSHS is continuing to improve its foster care services, including those pertaining to runaways, without court supervision, and that the agency will be updating both the state Legislature and the independent Office of Family and Children’s Ombudsman on its efforts.

The hearing on the Columbia Legal Services motion will be held in late July.

More detailed information on the Braam case can be found at the Braam kids web site and at DSHS.

John Stang covers state government for Crosscut. He can be reached by writing editor@crosscut.com.


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