EARLIER this month, Washington State Department of Social and Health Services agreed to pay $11 million to six victimized foster children living in a Tacoma “house of horrors.” Their foster father allegedly subjected the children to repeated sexual and physical abuse. Their foster mother had more than 50 arrests and lost custody of her own children prior to DSHS approving the couple as foster parents.
Despite receiving more than 35 complaints from neighbors, teachers and the children themselves, DSHS failed to adequately investigate the allegations. How could this happen? If DSHS were a private agency, their contract would be terminated. Yet Washington’s foster children continue to needlessly suffer due to mismanagement and incompetence at the department.
This year, the department’s Children’s Administration budget is $545 million. This averages out to more than $50,000 annually for each child in foster care. Despite enormous financial resources, DSHS has proved time and again incapable of providing appropriate homes.
In a news release announcing the settlement, DSHS Assistant Secretary Denise Revels Robinson said, “We regret that these children suffered at the hands of adults they had trusted to love and keep them safe.” Robinson admitted no responsibility, nor did she apologize to the victims.
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Unfortunately, I know firsthand how foster children are neglected by DSHS. Earlier this year I wrote “One Kid at a Time,” an account of adopting my troubled 10-year-old son from foster care in Tacoma. While researching his story, I read hundreds of pages of court records and spoke to his court-appointed special advocate, social workers and teachers. I discovered that for two years, my then-8-year-old son was mostly confined to a small bedroom. His only escape was going to school, where, unsurprisingly, he acted out. On Christmas Day, his foster mother locked him in his bedroom so he couldn’t spoil her family’s holiday.
DSHS admonished her for locking him up, but when she agreed to stop, they kept him in her home. She was paid $1,300 a month to keep him caged like a prisoner. There was an alarm on his bedroom door and a remote camera monitoring his movements.
When my son’s teacher shared her concerns, DSHS replied it was none of her business. When his court-appointed special advocate asked DSHS to find him another home, he was told my son was a “difficult child to place” and this was the best home they could provide. My son escaped by vandalizing his unemployed foster mother’s new Cadillac sedan. Against all odds, I met and adopted him nine months later.
Only when horrific cases become public is there a clamor to create new laws. But the problem often isn’t the lack of laws — it’s that DSHS regularly ignores them.
As taxpayers, I believe we should demand that our lawmakers improve our child-welfare system. At least three reforms are necessary to prevent this from happening again.
First, DSHS employees must follow their own policies, existing laws and quit covering up their mistakes. True reform will begin when DSHS is more concerned with helping children than protecting themselves.
Second, the Children’s Administration’s budget must be amended to spend significantly more on direct services for foster children and less for bureaucratic overhead.
Third, provide all foster children with easy access to an outside ombudsman to promptly investigate any accusations of sexual and physical abuse.
In his last speech, Hubert Humphrey said, “…the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children …” Washington is failing that test.
We can do better. We have the resources and moral obligation to care for our state’s foster children. Hopefully our lawmakers will view this “house of horrors” in Tacoma as a wake-up call for reform. If they don’t, it will surely happen again.
Jake Dekker is the author of “One Kid at a Time: A Single Dad, A Boy in Foster Care, and An Adoption.” He lives in Bellingham.