Gov. Mike Lowry on Friday rejected creation of a superagency to protect children, saying he will instead put a brighter spotlight on the workers who care for the state’s abused and neglected kids.
Lowry’s position drew criticism from a lawmaker leading efforts to carve out a Department of Children from the giant Department of Social and Health Services.
House Government Operations Chairman Bill Reams, R-Bellevue, said Lowry wants a “cosmetic” solution “to a much deeper problem.” He said a bipartisan group of lawmakers will pursue legislation to create a Cabinet-level children’s department despite a likely veto if it reached Lowry’s desk.
The governor and DSHS Secretary Lyle Quasim contended it makes as much sense to integrate social services for children under DSHS as it did in 1970, when then-Gov. Dan Evans formed the huge department. The agency, the largest in state government, serves not only children but the poor, elderly, disabled and mentally ill.
“Family problems are complex and you can’t address them too simply,” Quasim said. “Each client of DSHS uses an average of three agency services, such as medical assistance, income assistance, food stamps or mental-health services.
“The best solution is to make a comprehensive evaluation and deliver these services together, not to create more red tape.”
In a news conference, Lowry said the real problem is a lack of “checks and balances” to ensure that DSHS workers properly monitor group and foster homes, and that workers in those homes provide solid care for children.
Lowry issued executive orders and a legislative recommendation calling for four changes within the 16,000-employee agency. The changes were prompted by recent highly publicized cases in which children were sexually and physically in group and foster homes.
The governor’s executive orders would:
Create a separate division within the department to license group and foster homes. Currently, licensers and child-placement workers share the same supervisors, raising concern that the pressure of large numbers of children needing space in the homes leads to relaxed licensing standards. Lowry said he will need additional money to hire more licensers.
Give the Washington State Patrol authority to conduct investigations of the way DSHS handles its functions. The task is currently handled by DSHS’ Office of Special Investigations, but Lowry said an independent investigator is needed.
Create a system that would require at least one person in each of DSHS’ regions to monitor how children are doing in group homes and prepare annual reports to show how state services are affecting those children.
He also recommended that the Legislature pass a bill to create an “independent children’s ombudsman” to respond to complaints about the care of children by the state. The ombudsman would report directly to the governor and would issue annual reports and recommendations on how to better protect children.
Lawmakers next week will start hearings on proposals to break up DSHS, beginning with creating a separate department for children, Reams said.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.