After more than a decade, Washington continues to struggle to meet all the requirements of a lawsuit intended to improve foster care services for children.
But even as lawmakers and the Department of Social and Health Services try to find fixes for what’s known as the Braam lawsuit settlement, the state’s foster care system is experiencing another problem, a drop in licensed foster homes.
The state now has about 1,000 fewer licensed foster homes than it did in 2007, according to state data — a 17 percent decline.
Filed in 1998, the Braam case is named for plaintiff Jessica Braam, who had been bounced through 34 foster care placements by the time the complaint was filed.
A 2004 settlement in the case specified needed improvements for the foster care system related to sibling separation, mental health, training and information for foster parents, unsafe and inappropriate placements, and social-worker caseloads.
Over the years, the state has met most of the benchmarks, which have been monitored by the courts. But seven had not been met as of September, and DSHS has recently slid backward on three of those: the average caseload being handled by social workers, the goals of caregiver training and support provided to foster parents.
Even as the state has struggled in those areas, the number of licensed foster care homes in Washington stood at 4,946 in October, down from 5,965 in 2007, according to state data.
The shortage means that in some cases the state doesn’t have the best home placement for a child, according to Jennifer Strus, assistant secretary for the Children’s Administration at DSHS.
Mike Canfield, executive director for the Foster Parents Association of Washington State, said he worries that some of the decline is in long-term foster parents on whom the state relied.
“When we lose those, that’s a sign that the system’s distressed,” said Canfield, adding later: “We are losing some.”
The stakes involved in whether Washington has a well-functioning foster care system are high, according to Patrick Dowd, director of the state’s Office of the Family and Children’s Ombuds.
Poorly served foster children can struggle in school or can suffer from or develop mental-health or substance issues and possibly wind up incarcerated later in life, he said.
“It just kind of carries forward in every area of their lives,” Dowd said.
CASELOADS AND TRAINING
The Braam settlement requires 90 percent of social workers to carry a caseload of no more than 18 children. But only 82 percent of social workers met that average in the first half of 2015 — down from 86 percent in the previous six-month reporting period.
For each case, social workers are required to see the child, the foster parents and a birth parent every month, according to Strus. They also fill out the paperwork that goes to the courts and put together monitoring plans for children.
Strus said the agency is having trouble recruiting and keeping social workers. When a social worker leaves, that worker’s caseload is distributed among others, raising the average, she said.
If social workers are handling too many cases, “they can’t visit children regularly,” said Bill Grimm, a senior attorney for the National Center for Youth Law. “They can’t spend the time they need to ensure that the child’s needs are being met.”
The state has also slid backward in the support it provides to foster parents. At one time, DSHS had dedicated troubleshooters who could help foster parents — but Strus said they were lost in the budget cuts during the Great Recession.
A third area in which the state has slipped is providing training to foster parents. Among other things, the training teaches foster parents how to work with children who have been traumatized or who have special medical needs, and deals with logistical issues, such as how to get reimbursement from the state for expenses.
To improve, Strus said DSHS has recently been working to expand training to nights and weekends, to make it easier for foster parents to attend.
SEARCHING FOR SOLUTIONS
It’s not clear why the number of licensed foster homes in Washington has fallen, but experts and officials offer a variety of possible reasons. Grimm cites the need to improve inclusion of foster parents in the system.
“Foster parents do not feel like they are respected, that they are part of the team,” said Grimm, adding: “Existing foster parents are the best recruiters for new foster parents.”
Others say inadequacies with how the state reimburses foster families could hurt retention, and it takes too long for potential foster parents to get licensed.
DSHS is working on streamlining the background checks and fingerprinting that potential foster parents go through to improve the licensing process.
And some of the decline could be positive, such as foster families adopting the children in their care, or children finding a home with relatives.
Regardless, DSHS would like to have 6,000 licensed foster homes, which would allow more opportunities to place children with parents who are better equipped to take in kids of a particular age or set of circumstances.
In an email, Strus wrote that she believes improving caseload averages, caregiver training and support — the three parts of the Braam settlement in which the state has recently slipped — could lead to more licensed foster care homes.
Better training and support “naturally leads to greater satisfaction in performing the very hard work they do caring for kids,” wrote Strus. “Similarly, by decreasing social worker caseloads and workloads, they have more time to spend working directly with kids, families and caregivers to achieve the best possible outcomes for the kids.”
The 2015-17 state operating budget that lawmakers approved this summer added dozens of new positions to the DSHS’s Children’s Administration.
But that number is only a sliver of the 312 positions that legislators slashed after 2008, when the state slid into recession, according to Strus.
DSHS is requesting about $3.1 million in the upcoming January legislative session to add social workers and thus to comply with the Braam settlement. Also included is funding for staff to prevent foster children from running away and to find them more quickly after they have left, which are other unmet Braam requirements.
Will lawmakers act on the proposal? A spokeswoman for Gov. Jay Inslee and Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond and chief GOP budget writer, said decisions haven’t yet made about what could be included in a supplemental budget.
Strus said she’s hopeful DSHS will get the requested money.
“But,” she added, “I’m not betting the bank on it.”