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2009 child welfare law disputed

Union says agency moving too quickly to privatize services

The union representing state workers has accused the Washington Department of Social and Health Services of attempting an end run around the Legislature in order to privatize child welfare services.

Greg Devereux, executive director of the Washington Federation of State Employees, charged in a letter to Gov. Chris Gregoire last week that DSHS and its Children’s Administration is “circumventing” legislation passed in 2009 that requires a pilot project to evaluate how private contractors work with children taken from their homes because of abuse or neglect.

The union believes DSHS is moving ahead with plans for privatizing those services, even after such a sweeping change was rejected by the Legislature in favor of the pilot project.

“It is a clear attempt to gain what could not be achieved in the legislative process and violates the clear requirements of the law,” Devereux wrote the governor on Nov. 10. “The WFSE finds this to be wholly offensive and irresponsible.”

A spokeswoman for the Children’s Administration said DSHS is working with the governor’s office on a response to the letter from the union, which represents hundreds of workers whose jobs potentially could be lost through privatization of child welfare.

“We are following the legislation as required and intended,” said spokeswoman Sherry Hill.

DSHS Secretary Susan Dreyfus and Children’s Administration Assistant Secretary Denise Revels Robinson declined to comment on the union letter until they had time to evaluate it.

A draft request for proposals from which private companies would bid to become “master contracting agencies” could be available for review as early as Friday, according to Rep. Ruth Kagi, D-Lake Forest Park.

Kagi said on Tuesday that she believes DSHS is acting within the scope of the legislation she co-sponsored with Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, to improve outcomes for children in the child welfare system.

“This is the design the Children’s Administration has selected for moving forward,” Kagi said. “They are implementing the law as we passed it.”

The measure has two parts.

Phase I concerns “performance-based contracting” in which the state is required to consolidate its nearly 1,800 child welfare contracts into fewer contracts based on performance standards and measurable outcomes. The new contracts are to be awarded by spring.

Phase II requires the Children’s Administration to establish two pilot programs, one in either side of the state, in which randomly selected child welfare cases will be managed by a private supervising agency. Outcomes of the privately managed cases will be compared with outcomes in the state-managed cases.

The pilot programs are to be in place by January 2013 and then will be evaluated by the Washington State Institute of Public Policy.

By June 2015, the institute’s analysis will be submitted to the governor, who will decide whether to expand the project or end it.

The problem, as the union sees it, is that DSHS appears to be implementing statewide in Phase I what Phase II was designed to test – the private supervising-agency model.

“Sen. Hargrove attempted to get this in the original legislation and was unable to, and now it appears that this is a backdoor attempt to circumvent” the law, Devereux said Tuesday.

Implementing the supervisory agency model now, he said, “will mess up the comparison” in the pilot project between the privately run and publicly run case management.

But more importantly, Devereux said, it will take millions out of the child welfare system for overhead at a time when the state already has to cut services because of budget shortfalls.

He estimated the supervising agencies and their subcontractors would use a minimum of $84 million, or 54 percent of the existing budget for services to families and children, for indirect overhead.

That figure does not include additional costs for contractor start-up, quality assurance, contract administration and monitoring, Devereux said.

He called such spending “grossly irresponsible,” saying it “raises very serious concerns for the safety and well-being of the families and children of this state.”

Kagi disputed Devereux’s cost estimate.

“I dare say, 54 percent for indirect is not a real figure,” she said, adding that Washington Federation of State Employees “has been at the table. Their concerns have been voiced.”

The union will get another chance to air its differences with DSHS at a hearing of the House Early Learning and Children’s Services Committee, which Kagi chairs, on Dec. 8.

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