The new Department of Children, Youth and Families could make a big difference for Washington kids, but only if it fulfills its promise.
The Legislature and Gov. Jay Inslee took a promising step toward improving the lives of children by forming the new Washington Department of Children, Youth and Families.
The bipartisan plan — shepherded by Rep. Ruth Kagi, D-Seattle, and Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-University Place — should increase the focus on fixing inadequacies of Child Protective Services, the state’s foster-care program and other child-welfare programs currently administered by the Department of Social and Health Services.
Forming the new agency was the easy part. Making sure it improves the lives of children is the challenge.
The law that established the new agency — which combines early learning, child protection and juvenile justice — was very specific in its requirements. Since the state is making a $6.3 million bet that new agency will be an improvement, rigorous goals are essential. Lawmakers and advocates should watch closely and hold the agency accountable in achieving these goals.
In the next six months, agency head Ross Hunter, up until now the director of the Department of Early Learning, and his colleagues must set specific and ambitious benchmarks for success. The goals should be as audacious as the ones set for early learning. Among those goals was ensuring that 90 percent of children entering kindergarten will be ready to learn — and the state is making progress. About half the 2016 kindergartners passed all the readiness tests and 20 percent passed five out of six sections.
If the new department doesn’t meet the benchmarks, in the areas of educational attainment, physical and mental well-being, among others, then the consequences should be severe, and new leadership sought.
An agency priority is to repair Washington’s child welfare system, by establishing lower social worker caseloads and adding more preventive programs, retain good foster parents through better support and give foster kids the help they need to succeed in school and life.
More important than trying to attract new people to become foster parents, Hunter says his goal is to stop the exodus of those already in the system by giving them more support and training.
The new state contract with child welfare workers should help address worker retention in Child Protective Services. The budget also includes money to hire more social workers. This infusion of cash is a start, but the new department will be judged a success only if it can go from being crisis-driven to prevention-focused.
Hunter insists he will look for empirical evidence that new interventions and new ways of doing things are improving kids’ lives. He should be held to that promise and must prove through data that the state is getting better results. It will take time to see results, but state officials and advocates should keep their attention on the new Department of Children, Youth and Families. So much depends on its success.