A Whatcom County Superior Court judge will keep supervising the state's efforts to upgrade Washington's foster care system.
Judge Charles Snyder ruled Monday that the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services cannot declare that nine of its 21 required foster care reforms are legally completed just because it has come close to complying.
This is the latest action in the 1998 Braam v. Washington lawsuit, which accused DSHS of not meeting its constitutional duties to provide proper foster care. Jessica Braam, one of the 13 plaintiffs, and the one who provided the impetus for the original suit, had lived in 15 foster homes between the ages of 2 and 12. 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, which would oversee reform of the state's foster care operations. The panel supervises efforts by DSHS to implement a list of 21 improvements. In a Sept. 30, 2013 report, DSHS claimed that 14 of the 21 improvements are in place and another four are within 15 percent of completion. The plaintiffs contend that nine Braam requirements have not been met, and that coming close to a target is not the same as hitting it.
"Substantial compliance is not full compliance," argued plaintiffs' attorney Mary Van Cleve on Monday. The state agreed to the 21 conditions in the 2004 settlement, said Van Cleve, and has not shown any reason to change those targets. The state fell short on the requirements related to caseworker visits and trimming the number of children who run away from their foster homes.
Assistant Attorney General Carrie Wayno, representing DSHS, countered that some targets, such as the number of runaways and the length of time they are at large, should be adjusted to make them more realistic. Furthermore, she said, since the state is close enough to meeting all the settlement requirements, slight modifications to the goals are justified. Wayno also contended that work on the improvements would continue and that court supervision was unnecessary.
The plaintiffs and DSHS had previously agreed that meeting the 21 goals for 18 straight months would obviate the need for court supervision. The state is meeting that 18-month target on most of the required reforms, and Judge Snyder recognized the progress. "The department has done remarkable work in many ways," he said.
But Snyder, who criticized the state for falling short on the runaway matters, held the line, deciding that the court will retain its jurisdiction over the matter until the state shows 18 straight months of compliance on each Braam requirement. He plans to review the state’s progress toward that end in 12 to 14 months.
"Why should the state have wiggle room?” asked Snyder. “ ... I don't think we can rewrite the agreement because it is difficult or inconvenient for them."