A Thurston County judge has ordered the Washington Department of Social and Health Services to stop contracting with private agencies to manage child welfare cases until it can show that it complies with state law.
Ruling from the bench, Superior Court Judge Thomas McPhee ordered a preliminary injunction on Friday after the state’s largest public employees union sued the department, claiming it was exceeding its authority by privatizing child welfare.
The Washington Federation of State Employees also has filed an unfair labor practices complaint with the Public Employment Relations Commission alleging that the state is not bargaining in good faith and not allowing union-represented child welfare workers to compete for the work the state is trying to contract out.
“We were very pleased the judge sided with our argument and put a time out on what DSHS is trying to do,” said union spokesman Tim Welch.
The department said it has halted its request for proposals from companies interested in bidding for the work.
“The Department will follow the court’s directive,” said Sherry Hill, a state spokeswoman. “We are consulting with our attorneys to determine our next steps.”
The department contends it was merely implementing a 2009 law that requires the Children’s Administration to consolidate its numerous contracts based on performance standards and measurable outcomes.
The law also calls for a pilot project to be completed and evaluated by 2015 to determine whether child welfare is best handled by state or private agencies.
The union says the department is exceeding the law’s mandate and rendering the pilot project irrelevant by seeking proposals for contracts under a “lead agency” model for private organizations to perform functions now done by state case managers represented by WFSE.
The union asked that DSHS be enjoined from continuing, pending resolution of the lawsuit and unfair labor practices complaint.