As a new leader in the child welfare space, I thought it would be worth my while to do some listening before I made any big changes. So I went on a tour all over the state of Washington. I talked to caseworkers, foster parents, birth families, judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys and anyone else I could find who had an opinion. I got an earful.
“Everything is broken.” “I had a great experience.” “The caseworker never called me back.” “My (foster) child was moved out of our house arbitrarily.” “I have emergencies to handle and some phone calls fall off my list.” I think I heard every side to every story. They all have some truth, and there are a lot of different experiences of the foster care system.
We have a foster care system because some children are in situations where they are just not safe. Our first step is to evaluate and figure out if we can do something to make the child safe. Would a crib enable a family to have the child sleep in a safe place? Would a parenting class, or drug treatment, or even just some help with rent make it work?
If we can’t make the child reasonably safe, federal and state law require us to remove the child and place the child somewhere safe. These incredibly needy children who have experienced great trauma need a place to stay, sometimes temporarily, but sometimes forever. We’re dependent on the love and charity of the foster parent community to take these children into their homes and give them a safe and nurturing place. We adopted a framework from our Foster Parent Complaint and Concerns report to support foster parent/kin caregiver best practices.
Too often, we’re not so nurturing to the foster families. It’s rarely because of outright animus, and we fix those cases. Our caseworkers have too much to do, and they tend to prioritize emergencies. This sometimes means that returning a foster parent’s call, or notifying them of a court date change, takes a back seat. This doesn’t work, and we’re taking some steps to make the system work better.
First, our caseload needs to be reasonable, and the legislature has taken steps to address this. We have internal work to do to help kids gain permanency much faster, including a lot of work on our slow home study process, our background check system, and how we work with the courts. Getting enough assistant attorneys general to handle the cases in a timely way is critical here. I never thought I’d want more lawyers, but it’s not good for anyone if these cases drag.
Second, the signup process is painful, and it takes too long. Because of the complexity, there are many opportunities for failure, and I heard about all of them. We’re automating this with a new web-based system that will never lose documents, and will be there in the middle of the night when you want to enter new information. We’re doing work to speed this up, with an eventual goal of finishing in 90 days, 90 percent of the time. Places like San Francisco that have implemented systems like this have seen big improvements in foster parent satisfaction, and significantly better success recruiting.
Our communication with foster parents needs to improve. We hope to expand our application portal to be a resource for current information about the legal system and information about the child, allowing our busy caseworkers to focus on emergencies and not be in the middle of routine transactions. This will take some time after we get the licensing portal up, but should be a big help.
Everyone in the system has to realize that moving children from one place to another is incredibly bad for them. We have work to do internally to ensure we’re consistent about this, and we need to make sure we’re providing support to foster families overwhelmed with a traumatized child, rather than moving the kid to a new family that isn’t (yet) overwhelmed, but will be without the same support. Families ask for respite, for mental health therapy for the child, for basic support items, and we need to provide a graduated set of supports around all of them.
Our overall goals for children start with safety, but don’t end there. Children who move between placements stay in foster care longer, slide in their educational attainment, and suffer additional “adverse childhood experiences,” damaging their future prospects. Building a supportive environment for foster families can help to stabilize this, and we’ll help the children in our joint care flourish and grow.
Ross Hunter is secretary of Washington State Department of Children, Youth, and Families. He previously served as the director of the state’s Department of Early Learning and in the state legislature from 2003-2015.
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