OLYMPIA – Two days before Mother’s Day, Gov. Chris Gregoire on Friday signed new laws to protect children against abuse, including several changes spurred by the deaths of two foster children who died after being returned to their biological parents.
“What we have to do as a state is step up, accept responsibility and ask, ‘Why?’ ” said Gregoire. “Why did that happen, and how can we make it so it never happens again?”
One bill was named for 4-year-old Sirita Sotelo, beaten to death in 2004 by her stepmother, 14 months after state caseworkers moved the girl in with her estranged father. The tragedy – for which the stepmother is now serving an 8 1/2-year prison sentence – prompted a monthslong study by a state task force that included Sotelo’s former foster father.
“I feel like I’ve mourned her death for two years,” said Woodinville’s Gary Malkasian, shortly after the governor signed the changes into law. “Now I feel I can celebrate her life.”
Another of the bills was prompted by the death of Raphael “Raffy” Gomez, an Ephrata toddler fatally beaten by his mother after being repeatedly returned to her despite a long series of severe injuries.
The state owes it to foster children to ensure that they’re safe and secure, whether in foster care or after being returned to their biological parents, Gregoire said. Early in her career, the governor was a caseworker in a child-welfare office.
All told, Gregoire on Friday signed into law six child-safety bills approved earlier this year by state lawmakers. Among the changes:
“Parents at risk of losing their children because of neglect or abuse would get priority for court-ordered classes or other services necessary to provide a safe home.
“More children would be placed with relatives or other people with whom the child already has a relationship, so long as it’s in the child’s best interest.
“Caseworkers will do background checks on all adults in a home before placing a child there, as well as assessing all potential caregivers’ preparedness to care for the child.
“Judges will get complete information about cases to avoid the alleged “cherry-picking” of data that led to Gomez being returned to his abusive mother.
“Foster parents will have a right to be heard at hearings to determine whether a child will be returned to his or her biological parents and have a right to meet with state child welfare managers.
“Parents will be able to get more information about child-care providers.
The changes come on the heels of several other new measures, including a college scholarship program for former foster children, health coverage until age 21 and housing stipends for low-income youths trying to make it on their own after foster care.