Two separate reports, both critical of the state’s child welfare system in northeastern Washington, were released Wednesday by agencies investigating an unusually high number of complaints against the Colville office of the Washington Division of Children and Family Services.
A 10-month investigation by the Office of the Family and Children’s Ombudsman has found “a widespread crisis of confidence by the community in the child welfare system … that puts children and families at risk of harm.”
The Department of Social and Health Services Children’s Administration released its own report, which agreed with the ombudsman’s finding on a number of issues, but focused on a “systemic lack of communication and cooperation among all parties involved” in the welfare of dependent children.
The nearly simultaneous release of the two documents was apparently coincidence, said Mary Meinig, director of the ombudsman’s office, which is an independent watchdog over government agencies that have responsibility for child welfare.
Last June, Meinig’s office was asked by DSHS to review child welfare practices in the Colville office in response to concerns raised by state Rep. Joel Kretz and the advocacy group Washington Families United.
The Colville office covers Ferry, Pend Oreille and Stevens counties, where residents, including a grandparents’ support group, complained about child placement decisions.
Then, in March, Stevens County Prosecutor Tim Rasmussen wrote to Gov. Chris Gregoire and other state officials to state his concerns about alleged misconduct and corruption in the Colville office of the Division of Children and Family Services.
Rasmussen’s letter included allegations that Child Protective Services workers attempted to keep children from contacting their court-appointed advocates and “shopped” for health care and mental health care providers who would support their objectives in child placement.
Relatives were not notified or considered for placement of children, the prosecutor wrote. Other relatives had children taken from them and placed in foster care.
The ombudsman’s report supports some of these allegations.
Between Jan. 1, 2007, and March 31, 2009, the ombudsman’s office received 62 complaints regarding practices in the Colville office, of which 44 investigations have been completed. Of these the ombudsman found 16 adverse findings against the office, including violations of law, policy, procedure, “or simply poor social work practice.”
“These complaints had merit,” Meinig said. “Children were removed from placement for less than child abuse and neglect, which raises questions about how we are looking at relative placement.”
A Washington Families United spokeswoman said the problems cited in the ombudsman’s report in regard to the Colville office are present throughout the state.
“There is no one to hold these people accountable,” families advocate Linda Harris said.
In its report, Meinig’s office made several recommendations, including:
•That an outside professional mediation service address issues needing repair in the Colville area.
•That a diverse community board advises the Division of Children and Family Services.
•That the judiciary take leadership in addressing accountability, particularly in the appointment of mutually agreed-upon care providers.
The report also stressed the importance of keeping children with relatives in the absence of abuse or neglect, a clear violation of a court order, or imminent risk of harm.
Children’s Administration concurred with many of the ombudsman’s recommendations. But while Meinig’s office laid much of the responsibility with the child welfare agency, the Children’s Administration report focused largely on the strained relationship between the Colville office and the Stevens County Court Appointed Special Advocate Office.
“Both reviews identified similar areas needing improvement and provides an opportunity,” said Randy Hart, Children’s Administration interim assistant secretary. “We will work with our partners to implement the recommendations as appropriate.”