Fix problems before they're out of
The story goes like this: Several well-intentioned
people stood on the bank of a rushing river. Soon they noticed child
after child flowing by them, headed toward a dangerous waterfall. The
worried crowd waded into the water, trying desperately to save each
child tumbling by. They managed to pull many to shore, but an
overwhelming number of children continued to whirl by from someplace
upriver. Eventually, one person began to see that the solution was not
near the waterfall where they stood helplessly waiting. She moved
upstream, determined to figure out where and why the children were
falling into the river and what might be done to protect them in the
calmer shallows, before they got caught up in the river's rage and the
More than 44,000 children were seen by the state's
Children's Administration last year, due to concerns about child abuse
and neglect. Thousands had to be taken into foster care. Of those,
nearly 6,000 were reunited with their birth families, and 1,200 were
successfully adopted. The faces of these children, the success stories
of Washington's child welfare system, are rarely seen. They are the ones
pulled out of the shallows upriver. The faces we see instead are those
of Rafael Gomez and Justice and Raiden Robinson — all children failed by
a network intended to help Washington's kids grow up safe and healthy.
When we look to the bottom of the waterfall, we see them there, still,
broken, lost. The truth is, we have learned from all these children —
those who've been lost and the thousands helped. Their experiences
indicate clearly how best to reform a child welfare system that has
struggled mightily in the past decade. We've learned from child fatality
reviews and from the recent federal review of our system and ongoing
collaborative work of the statewide Catalyst for Kids. These sources
point clearly to necessary and specific systemic changes. They will
come. A river of change is coursing within Washington's child welfare
system, bringing with it sweeping reform of practice and policies. The
state's Kids Come First Phase II Comprehensive Reform Plan (KCFII)
incorporates all we have discovered in recent years — the good and bad.
As longtime advocates for children in need, we believe this plan is
moving the child welfare system in the right direction, and we call on
lawmakers to fully fund its implementation.
Why? Strengthening practices and mechanisms for
internal and external accountability will result in a safer, child-centered
Washington and stable homes for struggling children and families.
The potential power of accountability outlined in the
plan is clear:
Had reforms been in place for Rafael Gomez before he
died of blunt force trauma, his social worker may have helped link his
mother to substance abuse therapy. And the team set up to keep Rafael
safe would have been better able to provide the safeguards he so badly
needed. Rafael might have been pulled from the river.
KCFII goes boldly "upriver." It ensures that first
interactions with families are focused on improving outcomes for kids.
The reforms involve parents and relatives in the decisions that affect
their children from that first contact. They require that Child
Protective Services expedite investigations of abuse and neglect and
immediately provide services to address parents' substance abuse and
mental health concerns. With this plan, the first few days and weeks
after state contact will set a course away from crisis and away from
tragic outcomes for children.
KCFII does not forget those children who already are
dangerously near the "waterfall." It offers detailed strategies to
reduce multiple foster home moves, find and support permanent families
for children and prepare youths for successful adulthood.
KCFII is not a plan created by one leader or agency
because we know that significant outcomes are made by prioritizing
collaborative efforts, combining resources and listening to children who
have been in foster care. It was built by hundreds of individuals —
child welfare experts, public and private agency social workers, foster
parents, judges and youths. The plan is bold and comprehensive. It is
not static; as with all good planning, it will evolve and take shape as
we learn through experience and tough quality assurance standards what
adjustments may need to be made.
We are committed to the multiyear time frame outlined
in the plan to achieve lasting reform. In the wake of the most recent
child fatalities, it is tempting to demand quick movement in a different
direction. The river, however, continues to flow, shaping the lives of
innocent children. This plan considers every ebb and flow, every turn
Sharon Osborne is president/CEO of Children's Home
Society of Washington and on the executive committee of Catalyst for
Kids. Bobbe Bridge is a justice on the Washington Supreme Court.
17 February 2005