The child fatality review in the Summer Phelps case punctuates the state’s arduous journey in reforming the way it goes about protecting vulnerable children. Before the 4-year-old girl’s horrible death at the hands of her father in March 2007, Washington’s child welfare system had endured a failed federal audit, a class-action lawsuit by former foster children and other high-profile fatalities.
Robin Arnold-Williams has come and gone as director of the Department of Social and Health Services, and Cheryl Stephani, former director of the state’s Children Administration, has also moved on. Both arrived in 2005 amid controversies. The previous Children’s Administration director lasted only 19 months.
It’s tough work overseeing the fallout from so many broken families, but the state must remain vigilant. The Summer Phelps review highlights weaknesses in the system and offers recommendations that DSHS says it is already following. It is still hard to believe that the child’s abuse went undetected. A veteran pediatrician testified that she’d never seen a child as bruised as her, nor had she heard of a child being shocked with a dog collar or punished with underwater dunkings.
The review states that all agencies that help at-risk kids weren’t communicating with one another. For instance, nurses and others checking up on stepmother Adriana Lytle and her newborn baby were unaware of the case history involving Summer. Systemic constraints blocked such information sharing. In addition, Child Protective Services supervisors didn’t review every referral, which hindered their ability to spot patterns.
DSHS’ changes in these areas should help, and so should legislative action from last year requiring that the Office of the Family and Children’s Ombudsman be notified when a child nearly dies within a year of receiving state welfare services. In addition, a new law requires DSHS to inform a child’s guardian ad litem (a court-appointed overseer) when there has been a report of abuse or neglect.
But the state still faces an uphill battle, with CPS workers carrying caseloads above the recommended level and little prospect of new hires in a challenging budget year. In January, Mary Meinig, director of the Office of the Family and Children’s Ombudsman, announced a record number of complaints about DSHS in a report covering 2007 and 2008.
One in eight complaints in 2007 and one in five in 2008 were deemed valid, meaning that Meinig’s office found that DSHS violated a law or policy or acted unreasonably. One of the chief complaints is that the agency is slow to reunify families. She called for speedier placements of vulnerable children in stable homes, preferably with relatives.
The fact that there are publicly accessible online reviews of difficult cases shows that the state is taking the issue seriously. There has been progress, but the journey never ends.