Foster children's lawyers take state back to court

Washington state's foster care system is heading back to court, with lawyers for a group of foster kids saying the state hasn't done enough to make promised reforms.

The pending court action is the latest twist in a landmark lawsuit known as the Braam case, in which 13 foster children sued the state for bouncing them around foster homes without adequate services.

The state settled the suit in 2004 by promising to make dozens of specific improvements, including more state caseworkers, better foster parent training and increased mental health treatment for kids.

But lawyers for the Braam plaintiffs have criticized the state's progress and said Wednesday they have decided to seek a court order forcing the state to uphold its earlier promises.

"They've dropped the ball on certain critical areas," Casey Trupin, a lawyer with Columbia Legal Services, said. "The cour t needs to give some clarification that these are mandates. They need to be taken care of quickly."

State officials weren't surprised by the move, which was foreshadowed by months of complaints from plaintiff's lawyers that the state wasn't spending enough to overhaul the foster care system. Some said the court action could help the state set priorities for achieving the huge set of reforms. Specifically, Braam attorneys say the state has fallen short by:

n Completing timely health and education screenings in only 30 percent of cases, instead of the 90 percent required in the settlement.

n Not cutting the number of times new foster kids are transferred from one home to another.

n Failing to decrease caseloads for foster caseworkers, and taking too long to raise the number of foster kids who see a caseworker once a month.

One of the Legislature's child welfare leaders, Rep. Ruth Kagi, D-Lake Forest Park, pointed out that lawmakers have increased spending aimed at the Braam case's mandates.

That includes about $4.6 million to add caseworkers over the next two years, with the goal of visiting foster children once per month.

However, Kagi said, the Braam settlement is so complex that policy-makers have found it hard to decide which areas to tackle first.

"I think getting some clarity from the court about what exactly is required would be helpful," Kagi said. "And the Legislature has never been given a clear idea from the plaintiffs about how much money they're talking about."

Robin Arnold-Williams, secretary of the state Department of Social and Health Services, agreed that a clearer sense of priorities could help.

"You can't do it all at the same time and do it well," Arnold-

Williams said. "We're trying to be strategic."

And while the Braam settlement focuses solely on foster care, Arnold-Williams said lawmakers and Gov. Chris Gregoire have also been putting money into programs to help children before they're removed from dangerous homes.