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State investigates child welfare office

Sun., Aug. 10, 2008, midnight

Large number of complaints at Colville office

A high volume of complaints regarding the Washington Division of Children and Family Services’ Colville office has triggered an investigation by the state ombudsman.

Ombudsman Mary Meinig will be in Colville this week at the request of Department of Social and Health Services Secretary Robin Arnold-Williams. The request was made because of concerns raised by a state legislator who represents that area and by the advocacy group Washington Families United, said Kari Burrell, executive policy advisor to Gov. Chris Gregoire for human services and housing.

Colville residents, including a grandparents’ support group, have complained about child placement decisions and have accused social workers and managers of unfair treatment.

“I know that that child welfare system is very difficult for families, but that doesn’t mean we don’t want to take a look at what’s going on,” Burrell said, explaining that the ombudsman has no enforcement power but can issue findings and make recommendations.

“There’s a tremendous amount of complaints,” said state Rep. Joel Kretz, the Republican lawmaker who represents that northeastern Washington district. Kretz said his office has been looking into the matter for more than a year and sees a pattern. “I just have a feeling that when there’s this much smoke, that there’s some fire somewhere.”

Marty Butkovich, regional administrator for the Children’s Administration, said staffing changes recently have been made at the Colville office that he hopes will result in better community relations.

“We’re making decisions about kiddos, and sometimes not all of the parties involved are happy with the decisions. I’m not going to downplay the fact that there are a few people complaining about what’s going on up in Colville,” Butkovich said, adding that Kris Randall, who manages the Colville office, now is responsible for two offices, down from four in the past. Butkovich said that should lead to more time spent in Colville addressing community concerns.

“It’s going to take a little time to correct some of this stuff, but I’m confident in her and in the staff as well,” he said. “I think things will improve.”

In 2007, the Colville office, which handles Stevens and Ferry counties, received 25 complaints. Sharon Gilbert, deputy director for field operations with the Children’s Administration, classified that as a “fairly good number” for the size of the area. By comparison, the Spokane office, which handles Spokane and Lincoln counties, received 60 complaints. Census figures show Stevens and Ferry counties have a combined population of about 50,000; about 456,000 people live in Spokane and Lincoln counties. So far this year, the Colville office has logged 15 complaints.

On July 16, Children’s Administration representatives attended a meeting organized by a group of Colville grandparents whose grandchildren had lived with them for years but then were placed in foster care. Also attending the meeting was the director of a national organization that advocates for grandparents’ rights. A support group formed by those grandparents has been meeting monthly at a Colville church for more than a year.

“Every one of the grandparents in this group, their grandchildren lived with them, and I’m telling you, these are upstanding people,” said Diana Williams, co-chairwoman of the group, Northeast Washington Grands. The grandparents don’t understand why, after raising their grandchildren for years, the children suddenly would be removed and placed in some cases with nonfamily members, Williams said. Child Protective Services “always states their very first effort is to reunite the children with family,” she said.

Meinig, the ombudsman, said she will be in Colville this week to determine how the concerns could be addressed. She said she’ll examine whether “there are patterns to the problems or predominant systemic issues that need to be addressed.

“If people are that concerned, there should be some kind of plan of attack,” Meinig added. “If you keep hearing the same thing, you say, ‘What are we going to do about this?’ Most offices take on a personality, and when you get a number of complaints, it’s, ‘How do we change this personality?’ ”

Kretz acknowledged that state government can’t look over social workers’ shoulders all the time, but he still wants answers.

“I really feel like the level of fear and concern in the public needs to have some attention paid to it,” Kretz said, adding that he wants to know whether the proper protocols are in place and being followed.

“Are they judging cases in a professional way?”

Contact Alison Boggs at (509) 459-5484 or alisonb@spokesman.com.


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