Fos­ter care cri­sis reaches new lev­els

The News Tribune - - Opinion - BY DEE WIL­SON

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-of­s­tate 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 re­im­burse

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

Adopt the goal of

A 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 A re­ceiv­ing homes for chil­dren en­ter­ing care us­ing the pay­ment model em­ployed by the state’s child wel­fare sys­tem for decades;

De­velop a model of

A pro­fes­sional fos­ter par­ent­ing, with the goal of pro­fes­sion­al­iz­ing one-fifth of li­censed homes within five years;

De­velop other al­ter­naA tives 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

A 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

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