Under the sprawling Department of Social and Health Services umbrella, children’s services in separate silos compete for attention with many other important concerns, such as long-term care for the elderly and psychiatric hospitals.
Wouldn’t it make more sense if children’s services, including early learning, were consolidated into one department and elevated to a state Cabinet position? A bipartisan commission of lawmakers and experts studied the question at length and came to a unanimous conclusion: absolutely.
So House Bill 1661, led by Rep. Ruth Kagi, D-Shoreline, would create the Department of Children, Youth and Families by pulling Children’s Administration out of DSHS and combining it with the Department of Early Learning. Children’s Administration oversees the Office of Juvenile Justice, Juvenile Rehabilitation and Child Protective Services, along with foster and adoption services.
Several other states have already made this transition, with encouraging results.
The idea of combining education with wraparound services follows brain research showing that young children will struggle to learn if their emotional trauma is not addressed. And if they struggle in school, it presages a whole host of problems that run up social and financial costs. Prevention is preferable to crisis intervention.
The concept is sound, but the execution can be complicated.
First, identify families that are struggling, and then help them restore a stable environment for their children. This can involve treatment for substance abuse, teaching parenting skills or finding stable housing. But some child welfare services are underfunded, with workers carrying large caseloads. Cultural changes within agencies are needed, too, according to interviews conducted by the commission. Parents who have had their children removed say the bureaucracy can be uninviting and demeaning. Often, they don’t understand the system, and the system doesn’t understand them.
The bill creates an Office of Innovation and Alignment to focus on reforming the process and creating accountability measures. Are the kids making it to kindergarten and beyond? Are they steering clear of the juvenile justice system? Parents who have been through the system would be consulted on reforms.
In addition, contracts with outside providers would be subject to performance-based standards. Partnerships with proven organizations such as the Family Impact Network in Spokane would be encouraged, as would cooperation with school districts.
The phase-in of the new department would cost $14 million to $18 million over the next biennium.
The Department of Early Learning has been an unqualified success, and the hope is that a similarly focused undertaking can improve the effectiveness of social services. Much like the push to coordinate efforts under criminal justice reform, the case for consolidating children services is compelling.
The Legislature should give it careful consideration.