Washington State Child Welfare System Driving Foster Parents Away

November 3, 2016 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

As readers know, I write a lot about state agencies charged with protecting children’s welfare. Lately, Texas’ broken system has been on my radar screen and with good reason. Before that, it was Arizona’s, with California’s thrown in for good measure. This fine article is about Washington State’s system and, to no one’s surprise, it’s about as dysfunctional as the rest (Investigate West, 10/28/16).

What’s good about the article though is its fairly comprehensive understanding of the state’s system and how each part of it tends to undermine the other parts. Plus, its emphasis is on foster parents and the problems they face with state officials and the kids they’re expected to care for.

As we’ve come to expect of state child protective agencies, Washington’s has the usual problems.

Annual turnover is about 20 percent statewide for child welfare workers, and it has reached as high as 30 percent in King County, said Connie Lambert-Eckel, the director of field operations for the Children’s Administration, the agency under DSHS responsible for foster care…

After state Children’s Administration jobs were cut and salaries frozen during the Great Recession, workers fled. Today, many child-welfare employees are brand new and just as unsupported as the parents. While the workers struggle to get up to speed on their cases, the kids suffer as their time in limbo without a permanent home is extended.

So Washington suffers from the same ills as other states – low salaries, too few caseworkers, high caseloads and high turnover. That of course is a sure-fire recipe for bad treatment of kids. High caseworker turnover means a child in foster care may see several different social workers during its stay. Each one has to be re-oriented to the child’s situation. That takes time and extends the child’s time away from its biological family.

[Foster parent Veronica Moody] watched as the children she cared for suffered in limbo, unsure of where they belonged, while the state bungled dealings with their birth parents. Most of the kids’ cases went through at least four caseworkers as they lived with the Moodys, setting back progress by months each time while the new workers got their bearings and developed new plans.

But the main focus of the article is how state incompetence affects foster parents. That’s a rarely-opened window on the child welfare system. Foster parents care about the kids they take into their homes. But they have no say in what the state decides to do with them and are often treated by overworked caseworkers as more of an impediment than part of the solution to children’s needs.

“All the problems the state causes, due to lack of resources and lack of training, make our job as foster parents very difficult,” Moody said. “It burns you out.”…

Foster parents say they’re being driven away by a state agency plagued by heavy workloads and high turnover. Overwhelmed state social workers often don’t return calls or email, leaving parents feeling unsupported and disrespected. Caregivers say they’re treated like “glorified babysitters” instead of team members. If they complain, they say the state opens trivial investigations or threatens to move the kids….

The low morale seeps through the system, and foster parents feel it keenly, according to the results of an annual DSHS survey released in May. The report said foster parents were “significantly less likely than in the prior year to say that workers listened to their input.”

Then there’s the fact that, because the state’s policy is to place kids in the care of relatives whenever possible, foster parents end up with the most difficult, most demanding children in the system.

“As the proportion of youth from more difficult backgrounds increases, overall stays in out-of-home care have become longer,” only exacerbating their mental and emotional trauma, according to a Partners for Our Children report.

Foster youth have grown more troubled over the past decade, Strus said, with “kids who are terribly ill with mental and behavioral issues.”

Unsurprisingly, foster parents are throwing in the towel, quitting foster care altogether.

InvestigateWest, reporting for KCTS 9 and Crosscut, revealed last month that the number of foster homes has dropped to the lowest point in decades. Without enough private homes for kids who have been neglected or abused, social workers are forced to babysit them in their offices and work overtime watching them overnight in hotels.

The state lost nearly one in five foster homes between 2008 and 2015 as families quit and potential recruits couldn’t be persuaded to sign up. Only 102 of the 1,100 homes that got licensed in 2005 were still accepting kids a decade later. The number of available homes plummeted to about 4,600 last year – more than 1,000 below the typical level.

That of course only exacerbates the already daunting problems faced by caseworkers – too few workers, too little time, too many cases, too little money and now, nowhere to put children who need homes. The situation is so bad that even people hired to recruit new foster parents are quitting.

Angry, anguished foster parents are the biggest turnoff to potential recruits, said Canfield, the foster parent advocate. She gave numerous examples of foster families who felt they had been wronged by the state and aired their nightmare experiences with friends as they grieved. The trauma then rippled through the families’ social circles, hampering recruitment. Dan Hamer, who oversees foster and adoptive support services at Overlake Christian Church in Redmond, called it a “one-by-one strike” by foster parents who quit and tell their friends not to sign up.

Karly Leib has seen that situation play out over and over again. Leib and her husband began fostering in 2010. She has led a foster-care support group since 2012 and worked for a private agency in Tacoma for two years, recruiting foster parents…

Their own experiences and the never-ending tales of others finally did Leib in, and she quit her recruiting job — reluctantly.

“I couldn’t bear the stories of the sheer incompetency and, in my mind, criminal negligence on the part of the state toward these kids, who are dependent on the state,” Leib said. “I thought, ‘How do I ask people to get involved in such a ridiculously broken system?’

Another state, another chronically dysfunctional child welfare system. There are fixes for this, but they don’t come free of charge. States need to spend more money – a lot more money – to hire enough competent staff. They need to prioritize parental care over foster care and, to their credit, many do just that. And they need to open the agencies up to public scrutiny. The secrecy with which these organizations work contributes greatly to all their woes. The ability to hide wrongdoing and incompetence serves no one except wrongdoers and incompetents.

In the end, Karly Leib reminds us of what is perhaps the most important fact in the whole situation.

“This affects our entire state, because these kids don’t live in a bubble. They’re in our schools, they grow up and are in our society, on our streets, in our prisons.

“These are our kids,” she said. “It’s not just somebody else’s problem.”




National Parents Organization is a Shared Parenting Organization

National Parents Organization is a non-profit that educates the public, families, educators, and legislators about the importance of shared parenting and how it can reduce conflict in children, parents, and extended families. Along with Shared Parenting we advocate for fair Child Support and Alimony Legislation. Want to get involved?  Here’s how:

Together, we can drive home the family, child development, social and national benefits of shared parenting, and fair child support and alimony. Thank you for your activism.

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