Nearly a decade after a legal battle produced major changes in Washington state’s foster-care system, officials and advocates are preparing for another fight — this one about whether the courts are still needed to monitor progress.
Accusing the state of not meeting at least nine of 21 agreed-to system improvements, advocates went back to Whatcom County Superior Court this month to ask that a judge stay involved and require additional improvement plans.
Among other concerns, the advocates say the state hasn’t done enough to reduce caseloads, to increase visits to foster homes and to provide more information to foster parents.
But state officials say they have significantly improved the system, which serves some 10,000 children, and should focus on moving forward without spending more on additional reports and legal fees.
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“We now are in a place where we can excel with traditional executive and legislative oversight,” Jennifer Strus, assistant secretary of the Children’s Administration at the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS), said in a statement.
The disagreement is the latest development in a class-action lawsuit filed in 1998 by 13 foster children who claimed the state had exacerbated their mental-health problems by shuffling them from home to home.
One child said the frequent moves had denied her an identify for her entire life.
The case was named after plaintiff Jessica Braam, who had bounced through 34 placements by the time she was 12.
State officials agreed in 2001 to pay Braam and each of the other children $100,000.
Three years later, they agreed to make dozens of system changes recommended by national experts.
The attorney who filed the lawsuit described a state Supreme Court ruling that paved the way for the settlement as “the best decision in the history of the United States for children in foster care.”
The system has improved since then with less shuffling of kids, more health screenings and additional services for those transitioning out of foster care.
But the state has not gone as far as the plaintiffs hoped.
When the settlement expired in 2011, officials and advocates agreed to meet 21 targets by the end of a 26-month extension that was hailed as a “win for children.”
Now, with the extension ending and several targets still unmet, the plaintiffs seek continued court involvement.
Without that oversight, “there is little reason to believe DSHS will continue to improve the health of our broken foster-care system,” Amie Hilton, formerly Amie Anderson, one of the original plaintiffs, said in a news release.
The release pointed to a September DSHS report that outlined the state’s performance on the targets.
The report shows, for example, that 83 percent of caseworkers were responsible for 18 children or fewer. The target is 90 percent.
Meanwhile, 56 percent of caregivers reported signing a form with information on foster care, 80 percent reported receiving adequate support and 89 percent reported receiving adequate training. The target for each is 90 percent.
And 83 percent of children placed apart from their siblings received at least two visits from them a month — less than the target of 90 percent.
Most troubling, lawyers for the plaintiffs said, more foster children are running away.
About 3.5 percent ran away in the first six months of 2013, an increase from 3.2 percent in January-June 2012. The target is 2.5 percent.
The median amount of time on the run is also increasing.
“It’s unacceptable,” said Casey Trupin, a lawyer for the plaintiffs.
State officials said in their statement that they have made “exhaustive efforts,” including reassigning staff to find runaways and making safety materials available to caregivers and foster youth, in case a child does run off.
Ultimately, DSHS Secretary Kevin Quigley said, controlling the number of runaways “is impossible, although we try.”
Officials also contend they are meeting the target for monthly caseworker visits because that measure was set to a federal government standard that has since eased.
The state is meeting the federal government’s revised standard, not the old standard, which called for more home visits.
Trupin said the system should meet the old goal.
Those are the types of disagreements officials say would not be worthwhile for the state to spend money fighting.
DSHS said it has spent more than $900,000 on legal fees just since 2006.
“We’d rather spend the money on foster-care development, which is desperately needed, than on legal fees,” Quigley said.
Information from The Seattle Times archives is included in this report.Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @brianmrosenthal