Too many children are running away from foster homes in Washington and they stay away too long, according to the latest report detailing the state’s compliance with a longstanding agreement to improve its foster care system.
At this rate, state officials are not on track to comply with parts of a 2004 legal settlement before they return to court for a review hearing in February, said Jennifer Strus, assistant secretary for the state Children’s Administration.
Last November, a Whatcom County Superior Court judge ordered the state to finish implementing several foster care reforms included in the Braam settlement, named for the lead plaintiff among a group of foster children who sued the state over inadequate care. The plaintiffs had sought the court’s intervention after the state failed to meet its commitments.
The semi-annual progress report released last week shows that by February, the state won’t achieve the required compliance in some key areas, including lowering the percentage of foster children who run away from home and reducing the median number of days those children remain in runaway status.
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According to the report, 377 kids — 3 percent of the children in out-of-home care — ran away between July 2014 and June 2015, and those children remained gone for a median 32 days.
To meet the Braam benchmarks, the state must ensure that fewer than 2.35 percent of foster children run away, and that those that do are gone for a median 25 days or less.
The state must also improve how well it delivers information to foster parents about the specific needs of the children placed in their care, according to the report.
Strus, the assistant secretary of the Children’s Administration, said keeping children from running away from foster care or other out-of-home placements can be a challenge, especially when dealing with headstrong adolescents.
“I think it would be very difficult for us to meet this measurement because we don’t have it all under our control,” Strus said. “The only way to bring a kid back and keep them there is if they want to be there.”
Earlier this year, the Children’s Administration asked the Legislature to fund 18 more positions focused on locating runaways, Strus said. The agency received enough funding to add three, she said.
Casey Trupin, an attorney for the plaintiffs in the Braam case, said while the state has improved many aspects of the foster care system since 2004, the latest report shows there is more work to be done. He said one way to reduce the number of runaways would be to find placements that address the unique needs of adolescent foster children.
“There have been meaningful changes for kids,” Trupin said. “That doesn’t change that the areas that need improvement are absolutely critical.”
Trupin said he and the plaintiffs’ other attorneys are still deciding what remedy they may seek from the court.
Some options the judge might consider could include requiring more frequent progress reports, or assigning a court monitor to more closely oversee the state’s work on the promised reforms, Trupin said.