DSHS mismanagement hurts kids; we must break it up now

As ranking Republican and a member of the Senate Human Services and Corrections Committee for 11 years, I have seen the tragic results of the Department of Social and Health Services' incompetence.

Children under Child Protective Services' supervision have been beaten, tortured, starved and even killed - despite repeated warnings from teachers, neighbors and law enforcement officers.

Most recently, CPS workers sent a 12-year-old boy back to live with his grandparents after they beat and burned him and poured vinegar into the wounds.

The system is infected

In 2006, I introduced legislation to split up the agency and place the Children's Administration directly under the governor, where it could be held accountable.

Gov. Gregoire refused, saying she needed more time for programs she put in place in 2005 to work. I found that ironic, since splitting up DSHS had been one of her campaign promises.

Then, in 2006, the Joint Legislative Task Force on Administration and Delivery of Services to Children and Families did an exhaustive study of DSHS and the Children's Administration. The task force found that the current system is woefully inadequate, and voted 7-4 to break up DSHS.

I reintroduced legislation in 2007 to break up DSHS. Again, the governor said she "needed more time." Yet it's clear to see that her programs aren't working.

The truth is, Gov. Gregoire's programs will never work, because, as the task force learned, the real problem is an entrenched good-old-buddy network inside the Children's Administration and DSHS.

Management by intimidation

I have spoken privately with many CPS employees who describe their management as a web of cronies and relatives whose goals are big promotions and fat retirements - not protecting our children.

With a stranglehold on the agency, these middle managers send a strong message to employees: "Don't criticize the agency, don't object to our policies, don't rock the boat in any way or you'll be sorry." Only one employee was willing to testify openly against the agency before our task force, and he was later demoted.

CPS workers told us that their training is second-rate - they need more help in recognizing and confronting child abuse. They described an atmosphere of chronic disrespect for their abilities, intimidation by power, and a workplace where morale is abysmal, creating a revolving-door employee turnover.

We need real accountability

This situation will not change by adding a new program. The problem is like a virus or worm that gets into a computer and destroys it from the inside. Adding a program won't help - you need to surgically remove the worm, clean the system and start fresh.

Only your legislators and your governor can change this system. We must break it up, hire new management, and give CPS workers the advanced training they need to recognize and confront child abuse. It's time to get new blood into the agency, and end this nightmare for kids.

It's ugly to fix a broken system, but someone has to take the first step. Your legislators don't want to do it, but they will listen to you.

Contact your legislator today and every day until he or she promises to take action.

State Sen. Val Stevens, R-Arlington, represents the 39th Legislative District in the Washington Legislature.