New DSHS secretary can make difference

Susan N. Dreyfus, the new secretary of the Department of Social and Health Services, has an opportunity to make a real difference in the lives of children in the state’s foster care system and for the dedicated men and women who care for the state’s most vulnerable kids.

Dreyfus, who has headed the largest agency in state government since mid May, recently told foster care experts that she will embrace a 2004 lawsuit settlement as a way to improve the foster care system.

“What you will find with me is someone who is committed to seeing the implementation of this settlement,” Dreyfus 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.”

Let’s hope, for the sake of the nearly 10,000 children in state custody, that Dreyfus is a woman of her word and that her actions match her promises.

Last year marked the 10th anniversary of the filing of the Braam lawsuit on behalf of Washington state’s foster care children. The lawsuit was filed by attorneys representing 13 foster children who accused the state of bouncing them around foster homes without adequate services.

As the case progressed toward trial, evidence showed substantive flaws in the way the Department of Social and Health Services handled kids in the foster care system.

The state settled the Braam case in August 2004 by promising to make dozens of specific improvements in six key areas: giving foster kids a stable environment instead of moving them from one home to another to another; improving mental health treatment; offering foster parents better training and information; reducing the number of unsafe or inappropriate placements; helping siblings stay together when they are uprooted from their homes and improving services for adolescents.

The agreement spelled out a seven-year time period for making improvements and included regular reviews to gauge the state’s progress toward meeting its goals.

Lawyers for the original lawsuit’s foster children have repeatedly criticized department managers for dragging their feet, for missed deadlines and lack of progress. State officials have pointed to advancements in some areas but have repeatedly said they needed more time to fix the broken foster care system

A series of managers have taken a crack at reform with only mediocre results.

Legislators have responded by giving DSHS additional employees to ensure better oversight. Lawmakers also have introduced bills to separate Children’s Administration from the 19,000 employee agency that annually assists 2.1 million children, families, seniors and vulnerable adults.

Advocates say creating a separate agency focused on the well being of children would focus the spotlight on shortcomings and lead to substantive reforms.

Braam attorneys have threatened to take DSHS back to court and seek an order requiring the state to live up to the terms of the settlement agreement.

A year ago, those attorneys again complained the state was dragging its heels and a judge agreed, ordering the state to speed up improvements.

Now comes a new DSHS secretary and her promise to do just that — to use the Braam lawsuit settlement as a blueprint for improvements.

The pledge comes as welcome news to the Braam oversight panel. “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 panel created to ensure 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.

Dreyfus, who came to Olympia from a social service role in Wisconsin, said she considered the lawsuit before taking the Olympia job and agrees with its goals. She pledged to press her staff to use the lawsuit to guide reforms.

It’s imperative that Dreyfus live up to her commitment. The very lives of the state’s most vulnerable children depend on it.