The Office of African-American Children's Services — once considered a national model in the way it tried to address the high number...

The Office of African-American Children’s Services — once considered a national model in the way it tried to address the high number of black kids in the child-welfare system — has officially closed.

In its place is a new program that will serve children of all racial backgrounds who live in nearby ZIP codes. The OAACS office, touted as a promising new concept when it opened in 2003, shut down in March, after a federal civil-rights investigation deemed it “deeply flawed.”

The very thing that set it in motion — the apparent differential treatment of kids based on race — also led to its downfall. The federal government said Washington can’t transfer children into programs simply because they’re black.

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The change was lauded in some circles, where OAACS was seen as discriminatory or ineffective. But its demise also has deeply disappointed supporters, who saw it as their best hope for addressing troubling patterns.

“I think they had a very strong practice model, and I think they had strong support from the community,” said Nancy Roberts-Brown, who works with the King County Coalition on Racial Disproportionality. “They did not have … strong management and administration that was able to benefit from a really good idea.”

Welfare concerns

The idea behind OAACS (pronounced “oasis”) came from decades of concern about African-American kids in the child-welfare system, according to Germaine Covington of the Black Child Development Institute’s Seattle office.

Nationally, black kids wind up in foster care at a higher rate than white kids and tend to languish there longer. According to a 2004 study, African-American kids make up 30 percent of kids in long-term foster care but only 7 percent of King County’s population.

In 1999, the state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) opened a pilot project that would handle cases involving African-American kids in King County. With such intense focus, the thinking was, families could get the services they needed and their kids wouldn’t get lost in the system.

Four years later, OAACS opened as a full-blown office. Workers were to receive training in “cultural competency” — the social-work equivalent of diversity training — to deal more effectively with African-American families.

And most cases involving African-American kids were transferred to that office, no matter where in the county they originated. At one point, the office juggled 800 cases.

From the beginning, however, there were problems. Caseloads were high. Turnover was unstoppable. New managers came and went.

To top things off, OAACS repeatedly failed to meet standards in annual reviews. For example, state officials said investigations were often flawed and caregiver backgrounds sometimes weren’t checked.

There were no child fatalities linked to OAACS, but the state child-welfare administrator then in charge of King County said she began to feel they “were on the verge of disaster.”

Supporters say the problem was management.

“There really wasn’t commitment to it from the department,” Covington said.

In 2006, the federal Office for Civil Rights stepped in.

2007 warning

Although the agency did not issue official “findings,” it warned DSHS in a November 2007 letter that OAACS appeared to use “racial classifications as the sole factor in determining” which kids are served through OAACS.

“Although the purpose of the racial classification here appears benign … such classifications cannot withstand the strict scrutiny standard,” read the letter from the Office for Civil Rights.

DSHS concluded the program had to end.

Some community members were unhappy. The office was improving its statistics. And it was always good at some things, like placing kids with relatives. “Put yourself in their shoes,” said Joel Odimba, the new state child-welfare administrator for King County. “They’ve worked for decades to reduce disparity. … Of course the community will rally around it.”

The OAACS building has been renamed the Martin Luther King Jr. office, where services are provided to children based on ZIP code. Odimba promises that disproportionality will be tackled in other ways.

Community members and professionals are working on a new plan to address the issue. They hope to salvage some of the OAACS methodology, like its focus on families. Officials are also developing a new curriculum that includes cultural competency for all ethnic backgrounds. “All of us are concerned about the same thing,” Odimba said.

Meanwhile, Covington said, the community is waiting to see what happens.

Maureen O’Hagan: 206-464-2562 or