Can a Separate Department Reinvigorate Child Welfare?

(Originally published December 2016)

Washington State's Governor, Jay Inslee, has proposed creating a new department of children's services that would remove the Children's Administration (CA) from the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) and combine the state's child welfare system with the Department of Early Learning (DEL) and juvenile justice.

In a tightly controlled political process that left little room for critical questions or dissent, a 16-person Blue Ribbon Commission delivered to Governor Inslee the recommendations he was looking for: creation of a separate children's department dedicated to prevention combined with an agency that oversees early learning programs. Influential advocates insisted on the inclusion of DSHS' Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration (JRA) at the tail end of the Commission's deliberative process.


The proposal of a separate children's department has been considered a few times in past years, most recently in 2007, but those proposals were put forward by legislators, not the Governor. Until the current proposal, the state's governors have opposed the creation of a separate children's department, largely (perhaps) due to infrastructure costs but also because umbrella agencies such as DSHS serve an important political function, i.e., to moderate and mask conflicts over budgets and political priorities, instead of allowing independent human service agencies to ask policymakers for whatever top managers believe their agencies need to function adequately.  The decision of Governor Inslee to support the creation of a separate children's department is (implicitly) a decision to unmask and make more transparent the needs of the state's child welfare system. For this reason as well as others (see below), influential child advocates and policymakers interested in child welfare issues have declared their strong support of Governor Inslee's proposal and its attached financial request of 10 million dollars to create the infrastructure for a new children's department.  Washington State's past experience with the creation of new departments such as DEL and similar processes in other states suggests the possibility that the $10 million dollar estimated cost of breaking CA and JRA out of DSHS will prove to be an underestimate.  However, even if the 10 million dollar estimate for initial infrastructure costs turns out to be reasonably accurate, this is a significant investment given current pressures on fiscal resources in Washington State.


The rationale for a separate department 

In some of their announcements and comments, the Governor's Office and proponents of the proposal have pointed to increased accountability and the practicality of having a single agency responsible for program planning as a rationale for a separate children's department.  The Blue Ribbon Commission report points to the need for improved “alignment” of prevention services and other family support services in its rationale for a new children's department.  However, accountability, program planning and “alignment” are bureaucratic concepts more likely to create yawns than excitement among advocates and the public at large.  What excites advocates and influential policymakers is:

  • a new vision for child welfare focused on promoting positive early brain development   

  • a new mission emphasizing prevention/early intervention

  • a new organizational structure without the historical baggage of CA

  • new leadership that may well come from early learning instead of child welfare

  • a new partnership between state government and the state's wealthy foundations and philanthropists, and 

  • renewed hope among advocates and stakeholders in child welfare reform.


Governor Inslee's proposal comes at a time when advocates and key policymakers are deeply disillusioned with the state's child welfare system under any and all leadership. Some of these influential persons appear to have been disappointed by failed (from their perspective) reform initiatives once too often.  One veteran advocate recently expressed to me the view that “What we have (in the child welfare system) is not working and has not worked for decades.”  I have heard other policymakers and advocates assert that the inadequacies of the state's child welfare system calls into question their life's work.  It is no small thing when a critical mass of influential advocates and policymakers lose confidence in the possibility of reforming a human services system.  Conversations among like minded individuals tend to strengthen their views and lead to resistance to make additional large investments in child welfare reform, absent a dramatic change such as a new vision, mission, organizational framework, etc.  Possibly, the strongest argument for creating a new children's department is to instill hope among advocates, stakeholders, policymakers and even CA staff that effective child welfare reform is possible, and that the state is on the right path to real improvements rather than stuck in a demoralizing impasse.


What about Resources?   


The Blue Ribbon Commission report has much to say about aspirations, principles, values, “alignment” and exciting possibilities but little or no detail about resources that a new children's department should be given or about new programs or initiatives that the agency would implement. The lack of substantive content regarding necessary resources apart from infrastructure costs, or of an answer to the question, “what will be different in services and programs under the new department?” is probably intentional.  Any proposal with a huge price tag is unlikely to be positively received in the coming legislative session billed (in the Blue Ribbon Commission's discussions) as a potential “knife fight” for scarce resources among human services agencies and between education and human services lobbies.


Supporters of the Governor's proposal may well be right that the inclusion of a child welfare leader in the cabinet will be a clear advantage in budget discussions over the long run.  However, in the next biennium and possibly beyond, budgetary decisions are shaping up as a zero sum game, i.e., if one child welfare enhancement is funded another proposed enhancement will not be funded.  Some state legislators have already expressed doubt that there are sufficient resources to fund the Governor's agreement with the state employees union to increase social worker salaries by a considerable percentage.  In addition, the Governor's budget asks for 50-60 new positions for the Children's Administration and 5 million dollars to address the lack of foster care placements that has led to the placement of some children/youth in hotels and in 24 hour placements.  The Governor's budget asks for a small fraction of what is currently needed to address glaring needs and deficiencies in the state's child welfare system.  It is possible to imagine a destructive tradeoff: “we'll fund 10 million in infrastructure costs for a new children's department or the child welfare enhancements in the Governor's budget, but not both.  Furthermore, any salary increase for social workers will be tiny at best, and maybe it makes sense to wait another two years on salary increases for state employees.” This is an imaginary budget discussion that hopefully will not occur, but if the legislature forces this Fool's Choice, the answer should be that the most urgent child welfare needs are to:


  • raise caseworker salaries,

  • reduce CA workload, and

  • bolster the foster care system with placement resources.


Hopefully, the legislative process will proceed in a more constructive way than painful “Lose/Lose” choices.


The Cycle of Reform 


Two or three decades ago, it was common for state child welfare systems to undertake ambitious reform initiatives every few years following a high profile child death or two, e.g., following the deaths of Eli Creekmore and Lauria Grace in Washington State. However, in recent years some states seem stuck with never ending cycles of reform following child maltreatment deaths or other events that mobilize media attention and public outrage.  In the past 12-18 months, Texas policymakers have been on the receiving end of a barrage of blistering attacks from editorial writers and other media following a federal court decision that found the state's foster care system to be systematically violating the rights of foster children to reasonable care and safety.  One editorial writer urged the new head of the state's child welfare system, a former Texas Ranger, to call for the incarceration of state officials for operating a “state sanctioned rape factory” in its foster care system.  Illinois has undertaken extensive child welfare reform during the past few years as a result of news stories regarding widespread physical and sexual abuse in its residential facilities.


During the past decade in Washington State, the Children's Administration has implemented one major reform after another, including use of an actuarial risk assessment tool, solution based casework, a new safety model, FamLink (a new management information system), and Family Assessment Response (FAR).  Some of these initiatives were implemented in the midst of large budget cuts and staff losses. It would be surprising if CA staff did not have initiative fatigue after so many major changes, almost a major initiative per year, until the past couple of years.  Some advocates are disgruntled that CA managers have become resistant to additional practice changes until workload pressures are eased, but the reluctance to take on more practice changes, absent increased staffing and a reduction in the agency's turnover rate, is plain common sense rather than evidence that CA practice cannot be improved.   


Most child welfare reform initiatives have the same elements, i.e., modest staff enhancements, new assessment tools or procedures, additional training, mechanisms for improved collaboration among agencies, etc., and most fail to change much of anything. In my view, child welfare policymakers almost always utilize the same policy “keys” that have consistently failed to unlock the door to genuine reform.  Programmatic reforms have repeatedly failed to improve child welfare systems with high turnover rates (>30%) in key positions (e.g., CPS investigator) low salaries, ever expanding prescriptive requirements and little or no voice for caseworkers and supervisors in policy decisions or implementation planning. 


Large investments in the child welfare workforce must precede programmatic improvements


In states such as Washington where salary increases for state employees have been suppressed for more than a decade and where high turnover of newly hired caseworkers has exacerbated severe workload problems in the Children's Administration, the requirement to implement one more large practice change is sure to meet with strong resistance from CA line staff.  A new administrative structure cannot avoid or finesse the reality that large investments in workforce development, including salary increases of at least 20% for caseworkers and supervisors, sizeable workload reductions, opportunities for professional development and a new status/voice for caseworkers with policymakers, is the key to child welfare reform.  Programmatic reforms will improve child welfare practice only when programs are implemented by staff who believe in them and who are well paid and adequately supported by administrative support staff, home support specialists  experienced and well trained supervisors and realistic emotionally engaging training. 


Most child welfare leaders and policymakers around the country have continued to take the same ineffective actions in their reform initiatives while hoping for a different result. However, once in awhile something surprising occurs. After literally decades of expensive and ineffective reform initiatives, the Texas legislature recently gave several thousand caseworkers a $12,000 annual raise, and gave the state's child welfare agency 829 new positions at a cost of $142.9 million dollars.  Texas has a child population of 7.2 million; Washington's child population is about 1.6 million. A comparable staff increase in Washington State would be about 180 positions, possibly a few dozen less than CA needs but in the ball park.  Well informed and outraged public opinion in Texas demanded a dramatic policy shift in the approach to child welfare reform that would have been inconceivable even a year ago.       


Best Case Scenario


There is an exciting possibility presented by the creation of a new children's department that combines child welfare and early learning: a public/private partnership of state government with the philanthropic community to develop early childhood education programs on the model of Chicago's Parent-Child Centers.  These Centers could become the platform for a wide range of prevention/early intervention programs.  There is an extensive body of quasi-experimental research demonstrating a range of positive outcomes for children and young adults extending over at least two decades for Chicago Parent-Child Centers; these outcomes have included a large reduction in child abuse and neglect.


Advocates, scholars and policymakers have been searching for the past several years for a way to reduce adversities in early childhood, adversities that include but are not limited to child abuse and neglect.  Early childhood education programs based on the Chicago Parent-Child Center model is a strategic pathway to reducing early adversities that have such a devastating effect on children's health and development. This would be a costly initiative, probably out of the question in Washington without the support of foundations and other philanthropists.


The Blue Ribbon Commission's recommendations include the development of a center for innovation and data analysis that could mobilize the state's remarkable scholarly assets on behalf of creating better futures for vulnerable children. Again, the development of such a center in the current fiscal environment will probably require  considerable foundation/philanthropic support. 


How to Evaluate a New Children's Department  


If the state legislature supports the Governor's proposal for a children's department that combines early childhood education, child welfare and juvenile justice,  development of this new agency will take a year or two at the minimum.  Any new state agency will then require at least 5-6 years to develop a distinctive organizational identity, along with its service programs and community collaborations.  Around 2024-25, scholars, advocates and policymakers should ask and demand answers to a few key questions:


  1. What is different for children and families with open child welfare cases at the street level? Are there new services or programs or better ways of delivering services to the children and families who need them?        

  2. What new resources, if any, have been made available to the state's poorest and most vulnerable children and families?

  3. What new collaborations, or “alignment” of state and local agencies have been developed for prevention, early intervention or treatment?

  4. Has the large underfunding of the state's child welfare system been corrected? a) Have caseworker and supervisor salaries been increased by at least 20% after controlling for inflation? b) Have the workloads of CA  caseworkers been reduced to a manageable level? c) Have policymakers made a determined effort to address the deficiencies of the state's  foster care system? d)  Has foster care become a therapeutic system for behaviorally troubled children and youth?


It is important that a new children's department be directed by policymakers to pursue the goals suggested by these questions. To do otherwise will ensure a deepening child welfare crisis in Washington State.   


See the Sounding Board on child welfare workload issues.


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