Politics & Government

DSHS leader backs change to state foster care system

New Department of Social and Health Services Secretary Susan N. Dreyfus told foster care experts Monday that she will embrace a 2004 lawsuit settlement as a way to improve the system.

It was encouraging to the panel, which recounted halting changes by the department under two previous leaders.

“I think we’ve had five years of starts and stops,” said Jess McDonald, who once headed Illinois’ child welfare system.

He is a member of the Braam Panel. It was created to oversee a settlement that called for improvements such as lower caseloads for social workers, more social worker visits to foster homes and faster checks on foster children’s educational and health needs.

“I see well-intentioned people try to move forward one step at a time. But what I don’t see is a commitment to using the Braam settlement as a way to move forward,” said Jan McCarthy, a mental health expert from Georgetown University.

A year ago, attorneys representing the state’s roughly 10,000 foster children complained the state was dragging its heels. A judge agreed with them and ordered the state to speed up improvements.

Dreyfus, who left a social service role in Wisconsin, said she considered the lawsuit before taking the Olympia job and agrees with its goals.

“What you will find with me is someone who is committed to seeing the implementation of this settlement,” she said. “Not because it’s a settlement, but because everything that’s in it is good for the children who come to the attention of the system. I would not argue with any of it.”

Panel members seemed pleased with her approach to changing the Children’s Administration, a division of her 19,000-employee agency.

“You bring an excitement and an enthusiasm that I hope permeates the whole organization by noon tomorrow,” McDonald said.

But they also said she faces more challenges than changing the bureaucracy. Panel chairman John Landsverk noted the recession makes it “an absolutely abysmal time from a budget prospective.”

Casey Trupin of Columbia Legal Services, representing the foster children in the case, asked Dreyfus to commit to improvements that could be proved, not “data spin.”

“They have to be permanent changes,” he said.

Adam Wilson: 360-753-1688 awilson@theolympian.com