Foster kids in Washington deserve better

Dee Wilson of Tacoma is a child-welfare consultant.
Dee Wilson of Tacoma is a child-welfare consultant. Courtesy photo

I worked in public child welfare in two states for more than 30 years, including 26 years in Washington as a caseworker, supervisor, area administrator and regional administrator. I have been director of a child-welfare training and research entity at the University of Washington School of Social Work and have done large amounts of training.

During most of those years, there were periodic discussions of the foster care crisis, along with persistent efforts to reform the system through legislation, class-action lawsuits and settlement agreements.

Washington is not alone. State foster care systems around the country are shaped by acute and chronic shortages of foster homes and by difficulty in providing safe, stable and therapeutic care for behaviorally troubled youth.

But Washington’s foster care system is in unusually dire straits right now. The use of hotel placements costing an average of more than $2,000 per day has increased during the past year. The number of youths placed in expensive out-of-state residential facilities has greatly increased in the past two years.

Child welfare offices in some counties make frequent use of 24-hour placements in which children are dropped off after dinner and picked up before breakfast at a cost of several hundred dollars a day.

Young children moved daily from home to home may be cared for during the day in child welfare offices. It has become routine to place foster children of all ages out-of-county due to foster home shortages.

These are injurious practices which compound the losses to children resulting from involuntary out-of-home placement, and increase the risk that children will be further mistreated and harmed during foster care.

This crisis is the direct result of public policy: budget cuts to Behavioral Rehabilitation Services (BRS) during the Great Recession, the elimination of receiving homes, persistent efforts to reduce the number of BRS providers through inadequate reimbursement rates, and the refusal of policymakers and child-welfare managers to reconsider the voluntary status of foster parents, even for behaviorally troubled children.

Washington has a thousand fewer licensed foster homes than at the time of the 2005 Braams Settlement agreement, fewer residential facilities than a decade ago, and an understaffed child-welfare system unable to adequately support foster parents.

Policymakers in both parties have been unwilling to rethink policies that have had a disastrous effect on the state’s ability to provide foster children with safe, stable and humane care.

Without delay, policymakers and the state’s new Department of Children, Youth and Families should do the following:

▪  Increase reimbursement rates to a level that private child-placing agencies can afford to stay in business and provide therapeutic care;

▪  Adopt the goal of eliminating out-of-state placements within two years and, in the meantime, develop emergency measures to monitor the safety and well being of youth in these placements;

▪  Re-establish the use of receiving homes for children entering care using the payment model employed by the state’s child welfare system for decades;

▪  Develop a model of professional foster parenting, with the goal of professionalizing one-fifth of licensed homes within five years;

▪  Develop other alternatives to foster care, including day nurseries and therapeutic child-care programs for preschool children and crisis intervention mental health services for school-age youth;

▪  Conduct a workload study to determine the staffing needs of child welfare offices; make an ongoing commitment to reasonable workload standards for caseworkers in all programs.

All these strategies are urgently needed. It has taken years of bad public policy to drive the state’s foster-care system into a ditch.

A decade of good public policy, as well as excellent management of the state’s child-welfare system, is necessary to develop safe, stable, humane and therapeutic foster care placements.

Dee Wilson is a Tacoma resident and a child-welfare consultant. Read more about him and his work at www.deewilsonconsulting.com