Politics & Government

Children's agency wins praise

The Children's Administration won praise for its progress during a briefing to lawmakers Thursday.

"We still have a long ways to go, but I think we're making progress and I'm very encouraged," said Rep. Ruth Kagi, head of the House children's services committee.

The agency, part of the state Department of Social and Health Services, was in turmoil two years ago. Problems facing the agency included social workers' knowledge of children dying in abusive situations, the agency's budget was overspent by $12 million, and Gov. Chris Gregoire replaced the agency's director, Uma Ahluwalia.

Cheryl Stephani, whom Gregoire appointed, touted several improvements in service since she took over in mid-2005. Among them were quicker investigation of child-abuse reports, reductions in repeat-abuse cases and the restructuring of Child Protective Services and Child Welfare Services.

Stephani said the changes addressed transition problems that could stall important cases between the phases of abuse intervention and ongoing family support.

Stephani pointed to several areas likely to be the subject of legislation, including visiting children under state supervision every month and complying with the Braam panel's recommendations. The panel was created as part of a lawsuit settlement; it is an independent group of experts appointed by the courts to oversee improvements in the foster care system.

Braam panel members have not agreed to the Children's Administration's plans to further reduce social worker caseloads, to provide respite care to foster parents, or to make monthly caseworker visits to foster children.

"They would like us to get there faster, and we don't know how you get there faster," Stephani said.

To allow monthly visits to all foster children, Gregoire proposed adding $22.5 million to the agency's budget to add social workers.

Kagi said the state has done a good job of backing up its claims of success with hard data, but her committee will study the issues with the panel over foster care more closely.

"I would just like to see foster parents represented in what you view as the mission of the agency," Kagi told Stephani.

Adam Wilson covers state workers and politics for The Olympian. He can be reached at 360-753-1688 or awilson@theolympian.com.

Improvements cited

Children's Administration director Cheryl Stephani touted these improvements in service since she took over in mid-2005:

92 percent of emergency reports of child abuse are investigated within 24 hours, up from 76 percent two years ago.

90 percent of nonemergency reports of child abuse are investigated within 72 hours, up from 40 percent two years ago.

The speedier visits have reduced the number of children who are victims of repeat abuse by 25 percent.

About 116 social workers have been added in the past year, resulting in an average caseload of 21 each - down from 24 two years ago.

Social workers in remote areas have been provided with radios or satellite phones for emergencies.

Child Protective Services and Child Welfare Services have been restructured.