This piece was originally published by Dee Wilson in April 2023
Currently, there are approximately 6,100 children in foster care on any one day in Washington State, the lowest number of children in
foster care during the past 25 years. During most years since the late 1990’s, Washington’s foster care population was 9,000-10,000, slightly above the national average of 6 per 1,000 population, in part because the state’s child welfare system had a robust Family Reconciliation Services (FRS) program in which more than 1000 youth annually were briefly placed in Crisis Residential Centers (CRCs) due to family conflict, and also because of placements of disabled or behaviorally troubled youth through Child in Need of Services petitions.
These types of placements continued to occur prior to the creation of the Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF), but not as frequently. Until recently, it was never the case that children entered foster care in Washington or most other states due only to child maltreatment, though there has been a persistent effort across the country to reduce other types of placements. Parents of severely disabled and/or behaviorally troubled children and youth are often desperate to find placement options for children they cannot control. Refusing to fund alternative placements for these youth has nothing to do with family preservation. Rather, it is a retrenchment of child welfare mission, as well as a cost-cutting strategy.
Possibly one-third of the foster care reduction in Washington is due these policies. The goal of foster care reduction has been well served by the loss of residential care capacity during recent years. It has not been lost on child welfare leaders around the country that reducing residential care resources is an effective means of reducing foster care. When top child welfare mangers view foster care reductions and child welfare reform as virtually identical, why make investments in increasing and improving any type of foster care resource, with the possible exception of kinship care?
This is not speculative fantasy. For the past two decades (or longer), the main child welfare reform strategy in most states has been to reduce the number of children in foster care, often for good reasons. There was a period in the late 1990’s or early 2000’s when New York City, Illinois and Los Angeles County each had 50,000 children in foster care; numbers that overwhelmed and undermined child welfare agencies, juvenile courts, and foster care systems, some of which lost track of foster children who were not visited by caseworkers for months or even years.
One of the great stories in U.S. child welfare history is the reduction of foster care in New York City, a city of 8.6 million people, from more than 50,000 children to less than 7,000 currently. Both Illinois and Los Angeles reduced their foster care populations by 70% or more over a decade through extraordinary leadership and by means of innovative programs, front end to permanency options, e.g., guardianship in Illinois and Los Angeles. Other states such as New Jersey also made large reductions in foster care more than a decade ago, reductions that greatly improved their child welfare systems by increasing prevention and early intervention services and their caseworkers’ family engagement skills.
These dramatic success stories in developing alternatives to foster care led to a narrative of effective child welfare leadership: A charismatic leader is appointed in a state or large county child welfare system overwhelmed by its foster care population and workload demands, and under attack from all sides due to inadequate services and poor agency performance. The leader instills new commitment among child welfare staff to supporting families instead of breaking them up while finding creative ways to fund needed reforms. Large reductions in foster care reduce workload pressures on both line units and courts, and improves the reputation of the child welfare agency with parent and child advocates and with judges impressed by a substantial increase in timely permanency outcomes.
However, in some states this inspiring story has been undercut by numerous child maltreatment deaths attributed by news media to an inadequately funded, misguided, and poorly implemented family preservation initiative. In 2014, the Miami Herald published a series of articles regarding 477 child maltreatment deaths over six years following CPS reports, ten or more reports in 34 cases. Miami Herald reporters asserted: “The children were not just casualties of bad parenting, but of a deliberate shift in child welfare policy. DCF leaders (decided) nearly 10 years ago, to reduce by as much as half the number of children taken into care … They also simultaneously slashed services, monitoring, and protections for the increased number of children left with their violent, neglecting, mentally ill or drug-addicted parents.”
In words that resonate in Washington State today, a Florida Judge stated: “There are people at DCF who believe it is riskier to remove a child and place him in foster care than to leave him in the most dangerous environment.”
It appears this perspective has become widespread among juvenile court judges and commissioners in Washington influenced by an American Bar Association (ABA) report, “Trauma Caused by Separation of Children from Parents: A Tool to Help Lawyers.” This parent advocacy document cherry picks research studies to emphasize the potential emotional harm of child removal, while minimizing the possible lethal consequences and life-long effects of severe or chronic maltreatment on health and mortality.
Florida’s misguided approach to family preservation has lessons for other states:
It is dangerous for child welfare systems to set quantitative goals for foster care reduction, e.g., reduce foster care by half by an arbitrary date. This is a formula for mismanaging a foster care reduction initiative. A quantitative target should never drive child welfare decision making.
Florida narrowed its definition of child neglect in a way that endangered children, a narrowing of the scope of child protection currently under consideration in several states and nationally.
Florida deliberately undercounted child maltreatment deaths to reduce concern regarding its foster care reduction initiative. Agency managers deceived the public but, of even greater concern, they deceived themselves regarding the results of their family preservation practices.
Florida reduced funding for in-home services, choosing to depend on inadequate in-home safety plans and rhetoric regarding the emotional harm of child removal. Prior to the Miami Herald story, I was part of a team that met with child welfare supervisors in Florida regarding in-home safety plans. One child welfare supervisor stated: “we put these plans in case records and then we pray.” Following this comment, it was not difficult to predict the likely outcome of misuse of in-home safety plans in Florida. Nationally, in-home safety planning remains the weakest part of US child protection programs. As one Florida supervisor stated: “These (safety) plans are not worth the paper they’re printed on” when there is lack of conscientious follow-up.
Some readers may assume that child protection practices described in the Miami Herald are a thing of the past, but this is not true in some states. The recent report, “Minnesota’s Child Fatalities from Maltreatment, 2014-2023” is a study of 88 child maltreatment deaths over the past decade. This report documents indefensible child protection practices that have become widespread in Minnesota:
Ignoring or minimizing the significance of extensive histories of CPS involvement that included clear indications of chronic multitype maltreatment, i.e., combinations of neglect with physical and or sexual abuse, associated with substance abuse, chronic mental illness, and domestic violence.
Misuse of family assessment response with families with long histories of child maltreatment reports and multiple high-risk factors.
Applying a narrow definition of child safety, i.e., lack of imminent harm, to placement decisions without regard to the history of maltreatment.
Reunifying a child with parents who did not engage in court ordered services for substance abuse or chronic mental health conditions on the grounds that the parent was currently not using drugs or behaving in bizarre ways.
Leaving sibling groups in the custody of parents who had tortured the deceased child.
In Minnesota (as in Washington) some juvenile court judges were complicit in child protection practices that might be more accurately described as child endangerment rather than child protection.
The reduction in dependency actions
For most of the past two decades, CPS caseworkers in Washington filed approximately 6,000 dependency petitions annually on behalf of abused and neglected children. The number of dependency filings began to decline steadily in 2018:
NOTE: King County uses a different report for its filings. During the same period, dependency filings in King County dropped from 810 to 377. (Full report at: https://www.courts.wa.gov/caseload/)
From 2017-2022 the number of dependency actions in Washington declined more than half, a reduction that has occurred since DCYF became administratively responsible for child welfare on July 1, 2018.
DCYF managers are proud of the reduction in foster care resulting from the 54% decline in dependency actions. The DCYF “2022 Annual Progress and Services Report: Child Safety and Child Protection in Washington State,” asserts that the reduction in foster care has been achieved without compromising child safety, though Washington, like other states, lacks a credible measure of severe maltreatment outcomes to support this claim. In truth, there is no way to know through use of a child safety measure what the effect of the reduction in foster care has been on child safety, due to the inadequacy of current measures which track recurrence of maltreatment, not its severity, in subsequent CPS reports.
However, the DCYF self-appraisal contained in its annual progress report provides ample reason for concern. The report comments that “FAR (family assessment response) underperformed compared to other in-home and CFWS (foster care) cases …,” a theme the report returns to several times. According to the report, “As the FAR program has evolved, … more offices have moved away from the model of having separate work streams for FAR and investigation,” leaving CPS caseworkers responsible for both investigations and FAR assessments which “has created competing priorities with the most severe allegations often taking the priority and leaving FAR cases to linger.” In addition, the two components of FAR, assessment and service delivery, are also “competing priorities.” Assessment takes priority over service delivery when caseworkers are faced with competing workload demands.
By 2020, within a decade of implementation, the FAR program (to which 45% of screened in reports were assigned at intake) had become a version of “CPS lite,” with reduced standards which helped to manage overwhelming workload demands, and with minimal commitment to delivering services to low and moderate risk families.
The FAR re-report rate was 27.6%, while the investigations rereport rate was 20.6% vs. a CFSR national standard of 20%. These are not positive safety outcomes.
Themes identified in the Central Case Review Team (CCRT) audits of FAR cases include:
“Not facilitating timely engagement in services,” “lack of comprehensive assessments to provide safety related services” and “safety concerns were identified but the agency did not offer safety related services …”
CCRT and stakeholder interviews expressed concerns regarding “lack of monitoring of an in-home safety plan,”
“Lack of ongoing assessments of risk and safety at key points in the case,” “lack of comprehensive assessments of safety and risk vs. incident focused assessments.” And “Safety and risk assessments are not being used to drive decision making.”
The DCYF annual report makes clear that the reduction in foster care has not been due to consistent application of a risk and safety framework, more or better in-home services, or sound in-home safety plans, along with conscientious monitoring of these plans.
A review of several DCYF Child Fatality Reviews from 2021-22 offers more reason for concern. Some of these reviews document:
20-26 CPS reports on a family prior to a child maltreatment fatality;
The lack of recognition of chronic multitype maltreatment that included chronic neglect with periodic physical or sexual abuse;
Ignoring “sentinel” (first incident) abuse related injuries to a young child;
reuniting a child with a substance abusing and/or mentally ill parent despite lack of participation of the parent in or completion of mandated services;
misuse of FAR for high-risk cases;
applying a narrow “present-day” definition of child safety with families with lengthy histories of child maltreatment;
“Lack of curiosity” during family assessments after a court returned a child to parents over the objection of DCYF;
Interviewing children in the presence of parents, or not interviewing them at all;
Ignoring the physical abuse of a child if the abuse was committed by a domestic violence victim; and
Failing to check out an infant’s sleep environment as required by policy, followed by a “roll-over” death from suffocation.
Some of the deficient child protection practices described in child fatality reviews might have been due to caseworkers’ inexperience, given the increased difficulty of recruiting and retaining caseworkers in recent years, which has led to a lack of expertise that can only be acquired through experience. However, these practices also appeared to have been influenced by a culture shift in CPS decision making following the passage of HB 1227, legislation that narrowed the grounds for child removal to imminent risk of physical harm or severe neglect.
Patrick Dowd, Director of the Washington State Office of the Family and Children’s Ombuds, sent me the following comment: “I can say that in the course of OFCO’s work investigating complaints and reviewing critical incidents, DCYF staff in some counties have described a culture shift when assessing child safety and family preservation. They feel that their court has embraced the requirements in HB 1227 which go into effect July 1, 2023, and have applied this new standard when determining whether or not a child should be removed from the home.”
Concretely, what this means is that chronic histories of child maltreatment have no weight in court ordered child removal, and emotional or developmental harm to a child is not viewed as a child safety concern when making placement decisions.
There is a way to advance a commitment to family preservation in a way that is safe and through an approach that is dangerous. The recent history of U.S. child welfare systems includes examples of both. Safe family preservation practices include:
a steady expansion of family support services, with an emphasis on early intervention, especially with families of children, 0-3.
an insistence on rigorous safety and risk assessments which recognize that conditions in the home that affect child safety can rapidly change in troubled families.
a commitment to family empowerment practices that give parents a voice in case planning.
a check on confirmation bias through shared decision making.
a) emphasize family preservation rhetoric over support services,
b) engage in persistent attacks on foster care that make use of questionable research summaries,
c) narrow the definition of child safety to exclude chronic maltreatment,
d) misuse dual track family assessment systems for high-risk cases,
e) minimize the risks to children resulting from parental substance abuse, chronic mental illness and domestic violence,
f) reunify children with parents before they have made behavioral changes, and g) refuse to change course despite multiple child
deaths resulting from deficient child protection practices.
To date, it appears that Washington state (not just DCYF) has chosen the dangerous path to family preservation, a direction that is likely to become more apparent when HB 1227 becomes law on July 1.
© Dee Wilson
Caseloads of the Courts of Washington, Superior Courts, annual reports available on-line.
Child Fatality and Serious Injury Reports, Office of Innovation, Alignment and Accountability Washington State Department of Children, Youth and Families, Olympia, Washington. Available on-line.
AC Fatality Review 2022; SB Fatality Review 2022; RC Fatality Review 2021
Gehrman, R., “Minnesota’s Child Fatalities from Maltreatment, 2014-2023,” (2023), Safe Passage for Children of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN.
King County Superior Court Annual Report, 2017& 2022, available on-line.
Miller, C. & Burch, A., “Preserving Families but Losing Children,” Miami Herald, March 16, 2014.
“Trauma Caused by Separation of Children from Parents: A Tool to Help Lawyers,” (2019) American Bar Association.
2022 Annual Progress and Services Report (APSR). Revised September 15, 2021. Washington State Department of Children, Youth and Families, Olympia. Washington.