WE must continue progress to improve the state's foster-care system Every child brought into this world is precious, and deserves to be...

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We must continue progress to improve the state’s foster-care system

Every child brought into this world is precious, and deserves to be loved and care for. Unfortunately, many children are harmed or neglected by parents or caregivers. I think we all agree that protecting the safety of children is one of the most basic responsibilities of the state.

Thousands of children in Washington are placed in foster care each year. For most, it provides needed safety and stability. For a few, it does not. Gov. Christine Gregoire and the Legislature dramatically increased funding and oversight of child welfare over the past four years to address known problems, but more remains to be done. Regardless of what our progress has been, our foster-care system must improve.

Based on the recent judgment in the Braam case, the state has to do more to assure that children are visited every month by a caseworker, that they have visits with their parents and siblings, and have a health screen soon after being placed in care. Funding was included in the state budget approved in March for each of these important responsibilities.

While recognizing much work remains to be done, it’s critical that we don’t forget where we started and remember the vast improvements and progress we’ve made the past four years.

The governor shares my strong commitment to giving every child a good start. Protecting the safety of kids is our top priority. When Gregoire took office, Child Protective Services investigations were required within 72 hours when a child was considered at risk of harm. Today, it’s 24 hours — and fewer children have subsequent referrals to CPS as a result of these quick interventions. Four years ago, lower-risk cases waited as long as 10 days for investigation. Today, that response must occur within 72 hours.

Since Gregoire took office, she has added more than 400 new caseworkers to child welfare. Is that enough? No, but adding staff takes training, resources, budget and time. Progress is occurring, but a system in disarray cannot reach our high expectations as quickly as we would like. It especially doesn’t help if there are continuing attacks on state budgeting priorities.

Four years ago, average caseworker loads were 26 children. Today, that number is down to 21. We are on the right track and the governor and the Legislature show the commitment it takes to make these kinds of sweeping, necessary changes.

In the past four years, $198 million more has been invested in foster care. The 2008 supplemental budget alone outstripped increases in other areas of the budget, as it has in other recent years. The governor and Legislature have made critically important investments that are now being criticized as excessive budget increases. Without these increases, I shudder to think what additional tragedies we all would be reading about in the newspapers and seeing on the news.

Recently, the state was criticized for withdrawing from a national accreditation process. I sponsored the bill that established the goal of obtaining accreditation, and I wholeheartedly believed the state should pursue it. But the picture changed with many other requirements now in place. The law directing the state to pursue accreditation went into effect before the system-changing Braam lawsuit put strict requirements into place, and before the federal government began comprehensive reviews of each state’s child-welfare system.

While the accreditation process has been valuable, the agency is better served now by focusing on complying with the Braam settlement, meeting required federal safety standards and, most important, accelerating the speed at which we reach our commitments. That is why I supported the state’s decision not to pursue accreditation at this time.

Considerable progress has been made, changes all of us support. Moving forward faster will take more than incremental investments. It will take continued leadership from the governor, bipartisan support from legislators and an end to the blame game, which serves no one, especially our most vulnerable children.

Rep. Ruth Kagi, D-Lake Forest Park, represents the 32nd Legislative District. She chairs the Early Learning and Children’s Services Committee in the Washington House of Representatives.