There are some areas of government that demand appropriate funding, even in difficult economic times; and one is where society's most vulnerable lives are at stake, says guest columnist Jim Theofelis.

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IT’S no secret that the outcome of this legislative session will have a deep and lasting impact across all sectors of our state, including government and nonprofit agencies that deliver critical social services to the most vulnerable members of our society. While I understand that the current economy requires that budget cuts be implemented for some programs, there are others where we, as a society, must demand appropriate funding, even during times of economic crisis.

The Office of the Family and Children’s Ombudsman (OFCO) is one that has to be a nonnegotiable priority for our state.

OFCO has a current annual budget of approximately $1.3 million. Gov. Chris Gregoire proposed a 28 percent budget cut, amounting to $368,000. While this cut is a drop in the overall bucket in context of the state budget, it would have devastating effects on OFCO’s ability to protect our state’s children, youth and families from what, in some instances, can be life-threatening cases of abuse and domestic violence. Currently, the budget passed by the Senate proposes no cut to OFCO, while the House of Representatives’ budget proposes a 5 percent, or $41,000, cut.

Established by the Legislature in 1996, the role of OFCO in child protection is critical, as it oversees state agencies that serve abused and neglected children and their families. The central function of OFCO is to ensure that these children and their families remain safe, and are treated fairly and reasonably, by addressing concerns related to inappropriate action or inaction.

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OFCO also works to identify systemic issues in the child-protection system and makes recommendations for policy changes to the governor’s office.

OFCO has served as both a proactive protector and as a last line of defense for families and children when other state child-protection agencies fail to deliver appropriate service in a professional and timely manner. During this time of economic crisis, the risk to children will only continue to rise. If OFCO is not able to effectively intervene, we can expect that the legal system will. It is likely that the settlements resulting from an increase in lawsuits will far outweigh the minimal savings the budget cut provides.

More important, what do severe cuts to OFCO say about the values of our society if we compromise its ability to properly and effectively protect our children?

It’s estimated that the higher level of cuts will result in 200 fewer investigations by OFCO during the coming year, and for some children in our state, this could literally mean the difference between life and death. In other cases, this will mean that families whose children are unjustly removed from their home will not have an objective, professional investigator to ensure they are safely returned.

There are some functions that become more critical than ever during times of crisis, and the role of the watchdog is paramount. By failing to retain funding for OFCO, we are essentially deprioritizing the health and safety of our state’s most vulnerable children and families

Of all of the areas to cut in the state budget, does it make the most sense to save upward of $368,000 — a relatively small amount, yet critical to the continued ability of OFCO to protect our state’s children and families against continued abuse, neglect and trauma? I urge leaders representing all proposals to negotiate a final budget that preserves OFCO’s capacity to protect Washington families and kids.

Jim Theofelis is the executive director of The Mockingbird Society, a nonprofit organization advocating for positive foster-care-system reform.