State social services chief Jean Soliz said Wednesday she will quit at year’s end, glad to be out of the hot seat but angry and sad at what she says are coming hard times for the poor, old and disabled.
Soliz, attacked by lawmakers and others in recent months for her handling of the perennially troubled Department of Social and Health Services, said she and her top deputy, Suzanne Petersen, were leaving to co-direct a new non-profit corporation called the Washington State Children’s Justice Center.
Gov. Mike Lowry, who said Soliz leaves the department in better shape than she found it, gave no hint as to who he might appoint to replace her.
Interviewed in her office a few hours after her announcement, Soliz, 48, said she had some words for lawmakers looking to reduce child abuse, sexual abuse, hunger and other ills.
“Instead of everybody blaming everybody else, look for ways to invest in children, invest in education, take care of needs that keep people poor and hopeless instead of cutting investment.”
Instead, she said, “we have a country where the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer and working people slipping further and further behind.”
Asked what she would do if she could dictate how to fix the system, she said, “I’ll tell you what I would do first. I would explain to taxpayers that investing in social services, especially in children, is a good investment, good for the economy.”
Her critics, some of whom said they were glad to see her go, contend the problem lies not in lack of money but in a bloated bureaucracy led by people out of touch with citizens.
“I wish Jean Soliz well. I hope she has found a slot for herself that doesn’t require management skills because I believe that was lacking in her,” said Rep. Val Stevens, R-Lake Stevens, a leading critic.
Lawmakers from both parties have said they want the huge agency broken up into smaller departments, and Stevens said she and her colleagues would pursue the idea next year.
Soliz said she agreed the agency should be broken up, and that ordinary citizens need more control over social services. “We need to shift the system more into the community,” she said.
But she added that in an era of big cutbacks in state and federal spending, the first issue must be finding ways to pay for growing problems.
“Let me tell you. The number of admittances into our juvenile rehabilitation system has doubled just since I’ve been here. We are screening out 46 percent of the reports of child abuse to our agency and we can’t keep up with the ones we’ve got,” she said.
“We talk about cutting the federal deficit. We also have to talk about feeding poor people and taking care of disabled people and all the other things that people have expected of the government,” she said.