Most of the children in the child welfare system in Washington state are under the age of 5. These children are part of a system created decades ago focused more on responding to crises than prevention.
Washington state can do better for children. The goal is to reach families before serious problems occur in the home, so children have more of a chance to be successful in school and life, which leads to stronger communities and a healthier economy.
Advances in brain science show the importance of the first three years of life. Young children who are constantly exposed to stressful situations — such as physical or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, substance abuse or mental illness, violence or economic hardship — without appropriate support can suffer physical and mental health issues throughout adulthood. These include developmental delays and health problems such as heart disease, substance abuse and depression.
The proposed Department of Children, Youth and Families that the Legislature will consider this coming session will build upon Washington state’s success with early learning and give young children who are likely to struggle in kindergarten and throughout school a much-needed boost.
A decade ago, Washington state created the nation’s first cabinet-level Department of Early Learning to focus attention on young families. Since then, the state has become a national leader in early learning efforts that have shown progress in minimizing the opportunity gap and improving kindergarten readiness. High-quality early learning programs are comprehensive by offering greater access to basic needs, housing, and education and employment opportunities — giving families the tools needed to help them move out of poverty. It's time to build on what we know works and needs to be done.
Right now, though, critical child and family services are fragmented and offered through several agencies. Families struggle to navigate these complicated systems, inhibiting progress for them to find the services they truly need. Combining child and family services into one department that reports directly to the governor will create the accountability that is necessary to improve services for families.
The proposed Department of Children, Youth and Families is the right solution because the focus will be put solely on children and their families. By establishing a single department, children and families will receive the support they need before serious problems occur. This, in turn, should reduce the overall number of children who end up in the foster care system.
To get ahead of problems for families and keep them together, Washington state needs to be at the forefront of change by establishing the proposed Department of Children, Youth and Families. We urge the Legislature to support this important effort this coming legislative session.
Sharon Osborne is president and CEO of Seattle-based Children’s Home Society of Washington. Benjamin de Haan is executive director of Partners for Our Children, also in Seattle.