The job of protecting children who are wards of the state can be confusing, contentious and highly subjective. Are children being properly raised? Are their emotional and physical needs being met? Is discipline needed? Is the choice or degree of discipline appropriate?
These are not easy decisions, but what ought to be obvious to all involved professionals is that the children’s interests are paramount. However, clashes are inevitable when foster families, school officials, health care providers, criminal justice personnel, court-appointed watchdogs and state case workers all have input.
Breakdowns in this coordinated effort are at the heart of the problem with the Washington Division of Children and Family Services regional office in Colville, according to two recently released reviews. One probe was conducted by the Office of the Family and Children’s Ombudsman and another by the Department of Social and Health Services Children’s Administration.
Both found an erosion of confidence between community professionals and the state’s child welfare office. The ombudsman said this contentiousness was putting some children at risk. It hasn’t helped that attitudes became hardened after some infamous cases, chief among them the death of Tyler DeLeon, who succumbed to dehydration after long-term abuse by his adoptive mother.
The ombudsman’s report found instances where DCFS has not complied with state law or its own policies. Both reports highlight what appears to be the larger issue, which is general distrust. The Colville office, in particular, seems to be suffering from a fortress mentality, which has hurt communication and collaboration.
As one medical professional noted: “the level of trust has deteriorated to a level that I hesitate to even get involved with the child welfare system but certainly if the lines of communication were open and more productive, cooperation could certainly begin to happen again.”
Even workers within the Colville office noted difficulties in dealing with their supervisors.
To repair the damage, the ombudsman’s office recommends professional mediation for disputes and a diverse local advisory board to inject impartiality. Those are good starting points for the Colville office, but the state agency ought to consider whether these problems are also plaguing its other operations.