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Kids give foster care solid marks

Lawsuit-driven survey also finds weaknesses

The nation’s most extensive survey of foster children in a single state found that Washington youths were generally pleased with their foster care placement, but that they still see their social workers too infrequently and receive too little help preparing for their futures beyond the child welfare system.

In the first survey of its kind conducted for Washington state’s Children’s Administration, 700 teenagers who were in foster care in 2007 were interviewed by phone. Other current and former foster youths, ages 14 to 20, participated in discussion groups.

About 10,500 children live in out-of-home placement in the state, including nearly 1,700 teenagers.

The report, “2008 Survey of Washington State Youth in Foster Care,” released Thursday, was a step in reform that began in 2004 after the state settled a lawsuit, Braam v. Washington, with a promise to improve the system.

“In some cases, the state is doing a good job. In other areas there is room for improvement,” said the survey’s principal investigator, John Tarnai, director of the Social and Economic Sciences Research Center at Washington State University.

While 88 percent of the youths ages 15 to 18 said they had been treated somewhat well or very well in foster care, just 44 percent said they had had a face-to-face visit with a social worker at least once a month.

“That’s an area for the state to work on, and I think they recognize that,” Tarnai said.

Monthly visits by caseworkers are required under the Braam guidelines. On Thursday, a Children’s Administration spokesman said the agency this month initiated a plan to bring the agency into compliance.

“We are adding social workers, but it’s not going to happen overnight,” said Robert Nelson, communications manager for the agency.

The survey also showed room for improvement in sibling visits and permanency of placements.

About half of foster youths not living with their siblings reported receiving visits with their brothers and sisters during the year. Just 51 percent of the teens interviewed had been in the same placement for all of 2007.

Also of concern to child welfare advocates: About a quarter of the youths surveyed reported running away from their foster parents in 2007.

“There are those who just do not like their foster parents,” Nelson said, the reason most often cited by runaways.

Children’s Administration officials were encouraged by survey results showing 89 percent of foster children were somewhat or very optimistic about the future. Nearly a quarter expected to graduate from a four-year college.

This reflects the agency’s goal that children thrive in the system rather than merely surviving, Nelson said.

Yet other data suggest the Children’s Administration has not done enough to inform the teenagers of their options. Only about half had been told about four programs to help foster youth go to college.

And just 38 percent of the older foster children had been invited to “a shared planning meeting to discuss transition from foster care,” a requirement of the Braam settlement.

“That is far from where we need to be,” said Casey Trupin, of Columbia Legal Services. “They want to plan for their futures, but they are not being asked enough to participate.”

Mary Meinig, director of the Office of Family and Children’s Ombudsman, agreed.

Foster children about to leave the system should be included in all aspects of deciding their futures, she said.

“They really have the right to know what their options are,” Meinig said.

The survey also reflected the disproportionality of minority children in the child welfare system. Seven percent of the youths surveyed identified themselves as American Indian or Alaska Native, though they constitute just 1.7 percent of Washington’s population.

Kevin Graman can be reached at (509)459-5433 or