OLYMPIA – Uma Ahluwalia, the chief of the state’s scandal-plagued child welfare system, has resigned under pressure after just 19 months on the job.
Gov. Christine Gregoire said Thursday that Ahluwalia’s departure is part of a broader slate of back-to-basics reforms at the Children’s Administration, faulted in several recent investigations of child deaths from abuse and neglect. The agency has also overspent its budget by $12 million.
Among the changes: Within a week, all reports of life-threatening child abuse or neglect will be investigated face-to-face within 24 hours, Gregoire said.
“Children’s safety, under any circumstance, is the fundamental mission of the agency,” she said. “We’re going to focus on that, and we’re going to get it right.”
The day after Gregoire took office in January, a Stevens County 6-year-old named Tyler Joseph DeLeon died. He weighed 33 pounds.
Nine days earlier, child welfare officials had been contacted about DeLeon, who showed up to school bruised. He died before anyone from the state visited the home. Agency policy was that social workers have 10 days to respond.
“When a child’s life is at risk, responding within 10 days is absolutely unacceptable,” Gregoire said Thursday, although she didn’t cite any specific case.
Even if the reported abuse isn’t thought to be life-threatening, she said, by Aug. 1, caseworkers will visit within 72 hours. By Oct. 1, all children under state care will be visited every 30 days, instead of 90. Gregoire sent a memo to police and sheriffs throughout the state Thursday, asking for their help sharing information and moving quickly to accompany caseworkers to problem homes.
“I can’t guarantee that there won’t be a fatality, won’t be an abused child,” the governor told reporters at the Capitol. “I can guarantee you that we’ll do everything we can.”
Ahluwalia’s resignation was requested by Robin Arnold-Williams, whom Gregoire recently hired to head the Children’s Administration’s parent agency, the Department of Social and Health Services.
“I did not make this decision lightly, and it was a difficult one,” Arnold-Williams said. She said the choice was “not about blame,” but that the state needs to have someone else managing the looming changes for front-line caseworkers. Deputy DSHS Secretary Liz Dunbar will run the agency while the state seeks a permanent chief.
Arnold-Williams is also dispatching 25 headquarters staffers to help out caseworkers, ordered a review of background checks of DSHS workers, and said she’ll seek an outside review of the entire agency’s operations.
Several lawmakers, both Republicans and Democrats, said they support the changes.
“When you keep losing children like that, something has to be done,” said Sen. Linda Evans Parlette, R-Wenatchee. “Somebody has to be accountable.”
Two days after Ahluwalia started work in 2003, 2-year-old Rafael Gomez of Ephrata died of child abuse. An outside review last year was a scathing critique of the state’s child welfare system, saying that social workers ignored or dismissed glaring signs that “Raffy” was in danger from his parents, from whom he was taken by the state four times. He died of blunt-force trauma to the head. His mother, Maribel Gomez, was charged with manslaughter.
This month, another independent investigation found that state child protection workers ignored or mishandled complaints about a Kent mother whose toddler and newborn starved to death in November. Their mother, Marie Robinson, was found passed-out drunk in a bedroom of the apartment, which was littered with more than 300 beer cans, police say.
Gregoire asked lawmakers for $13 million to speed up response times. And she said in a memo to all Children’s Administration workers Thursday that although she “cannot condone” the $12 million in overspending, she’s asked lawmakers for $4.8 million to help offset it. Arnold-Williams said the state will cut costs by curtailing employee travel, delaying state-paid orthodontia for kids under its care, and other savings.
“I don’t like having to do this,” Arnold-Williams said. “In fact, I’m pretty angry that we have to do this.”
Regarding background checks, she said she’s requested a review of how DSHS screens the criminal and disciplinary backgrounds of employees who work with vulnerable kids and adults.
In the Senate, Majority Leader Lisa Brown said the Children’s Administration has a very difficult mission: balancing protection of children with the rights of families.
“But we have to err on the side of child safety, and we have failed in that regard,” said Brown, D-Spokane. She said the overspending wasn’t Ahluwalia’s fault.
“The expectations,” Brown said, “were higher than the funding.”
Sen. Joyce Mulliken also said that the agency’s woes were bigger than just Ahluwalia.
“I think it’s a systemic problem,” said Mulliken, R-Ephrata. “But the person at the top takes ultimate responsibility. … Babies should not die when they’re under the care of the state. The one thing we ought to be able to guarantee is that they can grow up alive.”
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