Opinion

Carve up DSHS for kids’ sake

From the Editorial Board

Preschoolers take off from the steps of the state Capitol for a short fun run during an event to raise legislative awareness for early-learning support. A proposal to create a state Department of Children, Youth and Families calls for absorbing the Department of Early Learning. It also would split apart the mammoth Department of Social and Health Services.
Preschoolers take off from the steps of the state Capitol for a short fun run during an event to raise legislative awareness for early-learning support. A proposal to create a state Department of Children, Youth and Families calls for absorbing the Department of Early Learning. It also would split apart the mammoth Department of Social and Health Services. Staff file, 2015

What if societies were to reorganize in bold, new ways that ordain kids will be the focal point of community life, placing the well-being of children at the hub of all funding and policy decisions?

Some Tacomans have bought into this philosophy. Fourteen of them paid a visit a few years ago to Reggio Emilia, Italy, a city that has embraced a child-centered culture since the 1940s. The voices and needs of young Italians shape the planning of everything from parks to public art, workplaces to cityscapes, shopping centers to schools.

In 2015, the Children's Museum of Tacoma and University of Washington Tacoma jointly opened a child-learning center that’s steeped in these principles.

What if Washington government took a page from that playbook? Could it restructure in a way that makes the development of safe, successful children a top state priority, removing other distractions and carving out an agency with an unswerving mission of child welfare?

That’s exactly what would happen under a proposal to create a Washington Department of Children, Youth and Families.

The legislation shouldn't be written off as a $10 million bureaucratic reshuffling; it’s not just another blindfolded swing at the state's most targeted pinata, the Department of Social and Health Services. It is a sensible DSHS reorganization with bipartisan backing that should be adopted by the 2017 Legislature.

Attempts in past years to knock the stuffing out of the oversized agency have ended in governor vetoes. But Senate Bill 5498 and its companion, House Bill 1661, take a more surgical approach. The result is that Gov. Jay Inslee strongly supports the plan, saying it would bring resources, visibility and accountability to at-risk youth.

What's more, the department director would be a cabinet-level position and report directly to Inslee, putting children front and center. Today, as clients of DSHS, they can get lost in the labyrinth of valuable services for the elderly, disabled and other vulnerable adults.

Breaking off a separate department would provide a continuum of care for kids, ranging from abuse and neglect protection, to foster child and adoption supervision, to juvenile justice and rehabilitation.

The new agency would be grafted onto the Department of Early Learning, which the Legislature created a decade ago, and would retain the important role of kindergarten readiness.

In metaphorical terms, think of the overhaul as “taking the hand of a child and not letting go.” That’s how Sen. Jeannie Darneille, D-Tacoma, described it in a TNT Editorial Board interview this week.

Politics properly fade to the background on such matters. Republicans, like Democrats, believe in focused attention on childhood trauma. Both want to assist a smooth transition to adulthood. The blue-ribbon commission report that recommended splitting up DSHS won a bipartisan blessing last fall.

Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-Tacoma, is pushing for an oversight board and performance measures in the new department, which sounds reasonable enough.

As the 2017 Legislature enters its third month, lawmakers have kicked around scores of ideas to improve the outlook of Washington children. All are small potatoes compared to meeting the Supreme Court’s school funding deadline; the state must be faithful to its paramount duty to fully and fairly fund a K-12 education.

But establishing a Department of Children, Youth and Families ranks right up there.

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