Politics & Government

State's No. 1 advocate for kids

After spending more than 40 years working in child-welfare agencies on the East Coast and in the Midwest, Denise Revels Robinson is taking on the state Children’s Administration.

The agency she inherits, with an annual budget of more than $500 million, is tasked with investigating child abuse and neglect, protecting vulnerable children, determining when family reconciliation is possible and running the state’s foster-care and adoption system.

When the agency fails, children can die.

“It’s a huge responsibility,” said Revels Robinson, “and I don’t think any of us takes it lightly.”

In meetings Revels Robinson has had with Children’s Administration employees since becoming assistant secretary two months ago, she tells staff she has worked in every program and nearly every job in the business.

“It doesn’t make me an expert, but it has given me experience and understanding,” said Revels Robinson, 62.

Revels Robinson graduated from West Virginia State University in 1969 with a degree in sociology, and she worked as a social worker in New York City and Washington, D.C. She served as director of child-welfare agencies in two Midwestern states and was a consultant on a federal panel evaluating family services.

For most of the past decade, she worked as director of the Bureau of Milwaukee Child Welfare, a state-run county child-welfare system in Wisconsin.

In 2008, a 13-month-old Milwaukee boy was killed by his aunt despite repeated visits from a private social worker under contract with the state-run agency.

Revels Robinson, who as head of the agency bore the brunt of early criticism over the death, asked to be transferred to a position where she could advise on policies to prevent child deaths. “A 40-year career in child welfare cannot be judged by one tragic incident,” said Susan Dreyfus, secretary of the state Department of Social and Health Services, who worked closely with Revels Robinson in Wisconsin and encouraged her to compete for the position in Washington state.

“Anybody who has been in this field long enough knows this could happen to them,” said Dreyfus, explaining that the death of children at their caretakers’ hands, tragic as it is, is not always preventable. Deaths can happen even when social workers have done everything by the book and taken every allowable precaution, she said.

Revels Robinson, she said, is among the finest child-welfare advocates in the country.

“Denise will prove in very short order that she is the right person for this job.”

In any given year, the Children’s Administration receives about 75,000 referrals for abused or neglected children and has about 9,500 children in foster care.

Last year, the administration conducted 35 reviews into the deaths of children receiving services from Children’s Administration. Of those, 12 were determined to have resulted from abuse or neglect at the hands of a parent, guardian, licensed provider or a parent’s partner.

In its reviews of the deaths, the administration determined that social workers in one case failed to take critical steps that could have alerted social workers to the serious risk posed to the child by the mother’s boyfriend.

Critics of the administration, on both the right and left, say Revels Robinson is inheriting a deeply flawed system.

Some claim the Children’s Administration routinely takes children away from good families but leaves others with bad ones. Some critics claim social workers are overworked and overburdened with administrative duties. Others claim they have too much power and that the system fails when it relies on the judgment of individuals.

Many say the administration is too large and unwieldy. They argue that it should be broken down into smaller agencies or dismantled and rebuilt from scratch.

But the system in Milwaukee that Revels Robinson inherited was far more troubled, according to Thomas Shapley, a spokesman for Washington State Department of Social and Health Services, which oversees Children’s Administration.

Milwaukee, he said, is “a tough, tough, urban setting.”

Milwaukee was under a court order to reform its child-welfare system when Revels Robinson took the helm.

During her tenure, the number of Milwaukee children in state care declined from 7,000 to 2,600, the number of adoptions tripled, and 77 percent of children were reunified safely with their parents.

Like Milwaukee, Washington state is under a court order to reform its child-welfare system as a result of a landmark court case, which became known as the Braam Settlement, in which a judge ordered the state, among other things, to reduce the number of times foster children are moved from one home to another.

Like many others who devote a lifetime to child services, Revels Robinson said she felt called to her career.

She had, she says, nearly an ideal childhood.

Her mother was a devoted homemaker who volunteered at church and with the Girl Scouts.

Her grandparents had a farm in West Virginia, where she and her sisters spent their summers.

Her father was a New York City police officer, tall and commanding.

He had a stern look that quelled the mischief of neighborhood kids, but a soft spot for his daughters.

It has been 17 years since he died, but she still tears up at the thought of him.

When she was 11, her parents opened their home to four foster children who became permanent members of her family.

“I realized that I was very blessed to have the family I did,” said Revels Robinson. “I always thought it was important to give back.”

Among Revels Robinson’s top goals are safely reducing the number of children in foster care and safely lowering the number of children who are removed from their homes initially by providing more services to families.

“The goal is giving parents the resources they need to take care of their children rather than separating families,” she said.

Another priority is building relationships between her agency and other agencies, both public and private, that also work for the good of children.

“There are a lot of champions for children in this state,” she said. “And we all need to work together.”

Revels Robinson said she urges her staff to take time for themselves and their families and to remember when they get to work that they need to be fully there for the children they are supposed to protect.