Washington lawmakers have passed a bill that tightens the criteria for removing children from their parents — a first step, supporters say, toward overhauling a foster-care system that disproportionately affects poor, Black and Native American families.
Ross Hunter, secretary of the Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF), issued a statement supporting the legislation, which sits on Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk.
“The changes proposed by HB 1227 are fully in line with our intention to safely reduce the number of children in out-of-home care and provide a pathway to do that,” he said.
Hunter has said he wants to shrink the system, which holds about 7,400 children, by as much as half.
The bill changes what the state has to prove in the first stages of a case, before a full fact-finding hearing before a judge, from a “serious threat of substantial harm” to “imminent physical harm.”
While a difference of only a few words, “the current statute says, look as far into the future as you want and consider any possible harm to the child,” Tara Urs, special counsel for civil policy and practice at the King County Department of Public Defense, explained in a recent interview. The words “imminent” and “physical,” she said, “would narrow the focus to this immediate situation.”
The bill also prevents the state from removing children because of certain conditions in the home — including poverty, inadequate housing, a parent’s mental illness and substance use — unless there is a specific connection to such a danger.
It arose out of a growing national movement calling attention to the long-lasting trauma that can result from breaking up families. Instead, advocates seek to shift resources from foster care to helping families resolve problems that often result from poverty. While many associate the foster-care system with abused children, the vast majority of cases relate to alleged neglect.
DCYF says it will take two years to update “an outdated decision-making process” that vets roughly 125,000 calls of suspected abuse and neglect a year. It will take rewriting policies, retraining caseworkers and installing new information technology systems.
The agency will also prioritize eliminating racial bias, both implicit and explicit, Hunter said. Black, Native American and multiracial people make up 11% of the state’s population, yet 32% of the roughly 3,200 dependency cases filed in 2020.
The DCYF statement committed the agency as well to increasing services that help families stay together and prevent abuse and neglect.
“It’s a start,” said Shrounda Selivanoff, public policy director for the Children’s Home Society of Washington, commenting on the bill’s passage. “But we’ve got more work to do.”
A local group advocating change in the foster-care system is continuing to meet to identify what’s next on its agenda. One possibility, Selivanoff said, is attempting to flesh out the section of the law that requires the state to make “reasonable efforts” to prevent the need for removing a child.
Another, more fundamental change the group might seek is reform of mandatory reporting laws that apply to teachers, doctors and others who work with children. Most calls that come into DCYF are determined to be either not credible or not pertaining to actual abuse or neglect, according to Hunter.
But others trigger what Selivanoff calls a “punitive system” that is difficult to shake once you’re in it. “Why do we think that’s the answer?” she said of a phone call to DCYF’s Child Protective Services. Instead of government intervention, she said, she’d like to find ways of building a community response to families in need.
Given that decades-old mandatory reporting laws are an ingrained part of society, that could be a bigger legislative lift than HB 1227, which passed with little opposition.