Close isn't good enough. That was the message from Whatcom County Superior Court Judge Charles Snyder last week, when he signed a final order giving the state 12-14 months to finish its work on foster care reforms.
Judge Snyder's Nov. 7 order ruled that Washington State's Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) cannot claim that nine of its 21 required foster care reforms are legally completed just because it has come close to complying. This written order echos Judge Snyder's verbal ruling on July 20 of this year.
Judge Snyder's decision is the latest action in the 1998 Braam v. Washington lawsuit, which accused DSHS of failing to meet its constitutional duties to provide proper foster care. Jessica Braam, one of the 13 plaintiffs, and the impetus for the original suit, had lived in 15 foster different homes between the ages of 2 and 12. (Plaintiffs in the Braam case are represented by the National Center for Youth Law and Columbia Legal Services.)
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 21 improvements. In a Sept. 30, 2013 report, DSHS claimed that 13 of the 21 are in place and that at least four more of the required improvements are within 15 percent of completion. Plaintiffs argue that the agence has not met nine of the Braam requirements, and that coming close to a target is not the same as hitting it.
The dispute involves caseload sizes, the frequency of state visits to foster children, training upgrades and a reduction in the number of children who run away from foster homes and how long they remain missing. Columbia Legal Services estimates that the Braam ruling affects some 10,000 children and that the state is obligated to implement all aspects of its mandated reforms. "The Court's order affirms that the clear promises made to foster children to improve care must be kept," said Columbia Legal Services attorney Mary Van Cleve in a press release. "While the State has made some significant improvements under this case, key areas still need fixing. As a result of the court's order, the State should redouble its efforts."
According to the Columbia Legal Services press release, the state recently announced that it will need an additional $10.1 million over the next two years in order to fully comply with the Braam reforms. DSHS plans to ask lawmakers for that funding in the 2015 legislative session.
"The Department has achieved 13 of the 21 outcomes in the Braam revised settlement and exit agreement," said DSHS spokeswoman Mindy Chambers, including reducing the number of placements for foster children and keeping siblings together when possible. "We remain committed to achieving the remaining eight [improvements] enforced by the Court and to continuing our good performance in the ones we already have met."
Chambers also notes that the Department "has been able to make these improvements to the state’s foster care system despite substantial budget cuts over the years."
DHSH won't be the only state agency asking for more funding in 2015. Braam reforms will join public education, transportation and a host of other pressing — and in cases such as Braam, court-mandated — demands awaiting state lawmakers when the legislature reconvenes in January.