Local news

Report says DSHS complaints hit ‘all-time high’

FRIDAY, JAN. 23, 2009, 12:01 A.M.

Ombudsman office recommends changes to system

Vulnerable children in Washington need to be placed in permanent, safe homes – preferably with caring relatives. And the quicker, the better.

That’s the main message in a 102-page report issued this week by Mary Meinig, director of the Office of Family and Children’s Ombudsman, an agency that investigates concerns about the Department of Social and Health Services.

Among the highlights in the 2007 and 2008 report:

•The ombudsman’s office responded to more than 2,000 inquiries, received more than 1,200 complaints, and completed 521 complaint investigations in 2007 and 627 in 2008. This was “an all-time high,” according to the report, and “the Ombudsman found a higher percentage of agency violations in 2008 than in any previous year.”

The Division of Children and Family Services, which includes Child Protective Services, Child Welfare and Adoption Services and Family Reconciliation Services, received the most complaints. “The safety of children living at home or in substitute care, as well as issues involving the separation and unification of families, were by far the most frequently identified issues in complaints,” the report said.

•One in eight investigations in 2007 and one in five investigations in 2008 resulted in an “adverse finding” in which the agency violated a law, policy or procedure or acted unreasonably. In some cases, no violations were found, but “harm to the child or family had occurred as a result of poor practice.”

•One of the report’s main recommendations: Increase long-term placements of dependent children with competent relatives. The ombudsman continues to hear complaints from relatives who were never considered as possible permanent caregivers for an abused or neglected child. One grandparent discovered via a news report that her grandchild had been placed in foster care after the arrest of a parent. Relatives also complained of poor communication with DSHS.

In a prepared statement, DSHS responded: “It’s important to note that the Ombudsman’s office reports that it deems nearly two-thirds of the complaints it receives unfounded. We will review the report and recommendations and will be working with the Ombudsman and her staff to find ways to better protect children in this state from abuse and neglect by their adult caretakers and bring permanence to their lives.”

Reach Rebecca Nappi at rebeccan@spokesman.com or (509) 459-5496.

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