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Detailed Portrait of Washington Foster Care System Shows Progress, Shortcomings after Braam

By Bryn Martyna

52ae6600d4More than four years after a class-action settlement ordered Washington to improve its foster care system, a new report has found continued shortcomings in the treatment of children in the state’s child welfare system.

Just 43 percent of children received monthly private and individual face-to-face visits from caseworkers in 2007, according to the report from the independent oversight panel created in 2004 to oversee the settlement agreement. Barely half of foster children separated from their siblings had two or more monthly visits or contacts with siblings. (However, the Department of Social and Health Services has recently set new policies and the state Legislature provided funding in both these areas). Moreover, only 57 percent of foster children were screened for mental health and substance abuse needs each year. The Department’s poor performance in the areas of monthly caseworker visits and sibling visits was among several issues that drove plaintiffs back to court last June to enforce the 2004 settlement of Braam v. Washington.

There have been some gains in compliance with the settlement agreement. For example, the 2007 data shows foster children were experiencing slightly greater placement stability than the previous year, as measured by children experiencing two or fewer placements. The Department also met three benchmarks set by the oversight panel in mental health: timely, comprehensive mental health assessments; timely provision of mental health and substance abuse services; and continuity of behavioral health treatment services from the same provider. The Department said it halted the practice of placing children in inappropriate institutions, at Department offices overnight, or in apartments or hotels without supervision – a harmful practice highlighted in the original Braam lawsuit. In addition, the amount of time children spent on runaway status from their foster care placements has declined.

NCYL, Columbia Legal Services, and Bellingham attorney Tim Farris, representing the state’s foster children, went back to court in June 2008 to enforce the settlement in four key areas: 1) monthly visits to all children in foster care, 2) reduction of caseloads to meet professional standards, 3) sibling visits for children placed apart from their siblings and 4) mental health and education screening within 30 days of entering care. The judge ruled in the plaintiffs’ favor, ordering the Department to comply with the settlement in these four areas. The Department is now providing regular reports to the plaintiffs and must show substantial improvement in these areas.

Separately, the oversight panel also releases semi-annual reports on the Department’s progress in all areas of the settlement agreement. Over the course of the settlement, Washington has improved its ability to gather and provide data to the panel and the public, enabling the panel to compare multiple years of performance to determine whether the Department is making the required improvements.

The oversight panel released its most recent monitoring report in October, which contained the findings on shortcomings on mental-health treatment. The report yielded a remarkably detailed portrait of Washington’s treatment of foster children, going well beyond the information most states have about the condition of their child welfare systems.

The oversight panel measures the state’s progress in six main areas: placement stability, mental health, foster parent training and information, unsafe or inappropriate placements, sibling separation and services to adolescents. The report includes data breakouts by region.

The report also included data from the second annual Foster Parent and Relative Survey, which included interviews with more than 1,300 caregivers about their experiences during 2007. Along with the first-ever Youth Survey (covered in the July-Sept 08 Youth Law News), this provides information from two groups of stakeholders with critical insight into the day-to-day functioning of the foster care system. Combined with a 2007 Workload Study commissioned by the Department, and the wealth of data provided to the Panel, the Department has information from a wide range of sources that can be used to make further improvements to the child welfare system.

Two other recent developments will also undoubtedly affect Washington’s foster-care reform process, though it remains to be seen what their impact will be. First, Children’s Administration Assistant Secretary Department Cheryl Stephani is leaving the Department, as is DSHS Secretary Robin Williams. Permanent replacements have not yet been announced. Second, Washington projects up to a $7 billion dollar budget shortfall over the next two years. Gov. Chris Gregoire’s proposed budget called for significant cuts to services for youth who are aging out of foster care – services that are required under Braam. A final budget is due from the Legislature in April 2009.

Bryn Martyna is a staff attorney at NCYL, specializing in foster care and child welfare reform. She is co-counsel in the Braam case.