After decades of grumbling but not acting, the Legislature should finally break up the mega-sized Department of Social and Health Services and create a child-focused agency.
THE state’s mega-sized human-services agency, the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS), was created in 1970 by consolidating five smaller offices. Often in the decades since, lawmakers frustrated by the behemoth’s performance have talked about breaking it up, usually with the idea of improving the child-welfare system.
That talk starts fresh again this year. This time, the Legislature should act. A well-thought-out plan emerged last week to create a new child-focused agency by merging Child Protective Services (CPS), foster care and juvenile justice with an existing department overseeing early learning.
DSHS was created with the idea that consolidation provides efficiency. But decades of experience show that vital child-welfare services get lost in the maze of the mega-agency. DSHS consumes nearly a third of the state budget, employs more than 17,000 workers and is responsible for everything from welfare and elder-abuse investigations to psychiatric hospitals and juvenile detention. The child-welfare system is just 8 percent of the overall DSHS budget.
It’s too much under one roof. Services to vulnerable children too often get shunted aside when DSHS begs the Legislature to throw money at a fresh crisis in a different part of the department, such as the ongoing meltdown at Western State Hospital.
The vision for the new agency is to emphasize prevention, intervening with at-risk kids in preschool or earlier on the hopes of diverting them out of trouble.”
The recommendation to create a Department of Children, Youth and Families emerged from a bipartisan commission that met for months after it was smartly convened by Gov. Jay Inslee. The plan is to merge the child-welfare system and a few programs scattered elsewhere in state government into the more smoothly running Department of Early Learning.
The vision for the new agency is to emphasize prevention, intervening with at-risk kids in preschool or earlier on the hopes of diverting them out of trouble. It would use research to provide services with the biggest cost-benefit return and focus like a laser on improving educational outcomes for kids in or likely headed into the child-welfare system.
All good ideas. But the plan has potential pitfalls. The merger is going to cost money — about $10 million a year to begin with. The child-welfare system is already underfunded. Emergency-level CPS complaints spiked 150 percent in the past five years, and social workers’ caseloads are up to an untenable level of 20 cases per person.
The urge to beef up this new agency should not starve the adult-focused programs orphaned in the old DSHS, especially the mental-health system.
The merger also would require better information technology. The IT backbone of the current child-welfare system is clunky and aggravates social workers. It needs to be swapped out, and state government generally does a lousy job fixing its IT problems.
Despite those kinks, the idea to reconfigure the state’s child-serving agencies is solid and thoughtful. After decades of grumbling but not acting, the Legislature should give this plan the green light.