Robin Arnold-Williams returned Tuesday to lead the state Department of Social and Health Services three years after resigning from the top post.

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When Robin Arnold-Williams walked back into the Department of Social and Health Services offices Tuesday morning, three years after resigning as the agency’s chief, she was greeted by a slimmer budget and thousands fewer employees than when she left.

Arnold-Williams, 55, has thought hard about what to say to employees and clients upon returning to lead the state social-services agency. She’s gone through several drafts of an email she plans to send to her staff and is determined to “be honest” with foster parents, families, elder-care providers and others who depend on the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) for assistance.

DSHS, the state’s largest agency with an annual budget of $5.5 billion, helps some of the most vulnerable people, including abused children, the disabled, refugees and those struggling to put food on their tables.

Since July 2009, the agency has reduced state and federal spending by $2.2 billion, officials say. And there are 3,855 fewer DSHS employees than there were in June 2008, said agency spokesman Thomas Shapley.

Stepping back into an old job at the worst of times is daunting: Gov. Chris Gregoire’s proposed budget calls for DSHS to slash $338 million more.

But Arnold-Williams said she wants to bolster employee morale and come up with new ways to help DSHS clients get the help they need — possibly through federal programs or by partnering with the faith community and the private sector. She also wants to strategize ways to keep the agency on the right track when the state gets out of tough economic times.

Arnold-Williams was rehired after DSHS Secretary Susan Dreyfus, who replaced Arnold-Williams in 2009, resigned to head a nonprofit social-services agency closer to her family in the Midwest. Arnold-Williams said she has promised Gregoire that she will stay on the job until Gregoire leaves office at the end of this year. The governor is not running for re-election.

“I don’t plan to just be a caretaker, where you are just there to be maintenance for the year,” Arnold-Williams said. “I also am not going to come in and attempt to undo everything. I want to find that balance: things we can do together, staff, management and the Legislature. There are things we can accomplish in 12 months.”

Arnold-Williams, who headed DSHS from 2005 through 2008, said that when she left the agency three years ago she was burned out. But she said she’s ready to lead again.

Arnold-Williams will take a leave of absence from her health-care consulting job. For the past 17 months she worked at Leavitt Partners, where she helped private companies plan employee health-care programs. Before working for Leavitt Partners, a firm started by former Utah Gov. Michael Leavitt, Arnold-Williams directed Gregoire’s Policy Office.

While Arnold-Williams has placed her consulting job on hold, she will continue teaching a class one day a week at the University of Washington’s School of Social Work.

She lives in Elma, Grays Harbor County, with her husband and their two Labrador retrievers.

Jody Becker-Green, assistant secretary for planning, performance and accountability at DSHS, has considered Arnold-Williams a mentor since Arnold-Williams was her professor at the University of Utah nearly 20 years ago. Before coming to Washington, Arnold-Williams worked for Utah’s human-services department for 25 years, the last eight years as its director.

“She’s the real deal. What you experience with her and what you get from her is the real thing,” Becker-Green said. “It’s always about what the impact is on the client, on the family. It matters to her. She also brings such impeccable ethics and integrity.”

In one of the more controversial cases during Arnold-Williams’ first tenure at DSHS, agency employees put a 12-year-old Pierce County boy back into the care of his grandfather after his grandfather and stepgrandmother were suspected of abusing him. The move resulted in harsh words about the agency from the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department.

In an unusual move for a department with a history of defending its actions in the face of criticism, Arnold-Williams ordered an immediate investigation into what went wrong and accepted responsibility for the errors.

Greg Devereux, executive director of the Washington Federation of State Employees, praised the decision to rehire Arnold-Williams. Devereux, whose union represents 16,000 DSHS employees, said that Arnold-Williams has been the most open and accessible secretary he has worked with.

“I think she’s incredibly fair; I think she’s incredibly thoughtful,” Devereux said. “The best thing about her is that she would tell you, good or bad, what was happening. Most secretaries or directors, if there’s bad news, they don’t want to talk to you.”

Devereux said he planned to call Arnold-Williams and set up a meeting, as well as congratulate her and offer his sympathies because of the tough job ahead.

“It’s impossible to provide the services needed with the revenue we have. It’s a lose-lose situation. Just about anybody can lead in good times. It’s extremely difficult to lead in times like this,” he said. “It will be tough. We’re in horrible times.”

Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this report.

Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or jensullivan@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @SeattleSullivan.