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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Washington child protective services tests new FAR approach in Spokane

Washington’s child protective services will handle some cases of child neglect or mistreatment differently under a new program rolling out in Spokane and two other locations.

Automatic investigations by social workers will be replaced with referrals to services that might help a family through whatever trouble they’re experiencing. It’s a less adversarial approach that’s been successful in keeping families together in other states, said Connie Lambert-Eckel, regional administrator for the state Children’s Administration in Eastern Washington.

“It’s a culture change overall, meeting families in a different way,” Lambert-Eckel said.

Two Spokane ZIP codes – 99207 and 99201 – are among the first in the state to take part. The program also is being launched in Lynnwood and Aberdeen, Wash., and is expected to spread statewide by the end of 2015.

Under the new program, Family Assessment Response, or FAR, the most serious cases of child abuse and neglect still will be investigated in the traditional way, Lambert-Eckel said, and some of those children still will be removed from their homes.

But lower-risk families – those who “just came off the rails a little bit” – will be given the option of participating in the alternative program, she said. If they agree, they’ll be visited by social workers who can offer help in the form of referrals to community services, in-home parenting tips and, in some cases, financial help with specific needs.

“Food banks, clothing banks, schools, the American Indian Community Center, NATIVE Health, the YWCA – these are wonderful, pre-existing programs that many families just don’t know exist,” Lambert-Eckel said.

Social workers will have about $500 per family available to spend on products or services that might help a specific situation, she said.

One example might be a family with a medically fragile child who has missed doctor appointments because of a lack of transportation; a social worker could approve auto repairs to address the situation, she said.

“We’ll assess circumstances and needs, and if there are immediate needs for concrete support – a washing machine, car repair, door locks, whatever a family might need to support the safety of the child – we’re going to help them get that pretty quickly,” she said.

Lambert-Eckel added, “This feels really like good social work practice.”

The goal is to have fewer children removed from their homes and to produce fewer official findings, which become part of a parent’s record and affect their ability to land a job, she said.

The Empire Health Foundation in Spokane is one community group that has worked with the Children’s Administration in planning the rollout of FAR. The foundation has provided funding for training and other needs and will continue to support the new program, foundation Vice President Kristen West-Fisher said.

“I think it’s a once-in-several-decades opportunity to improve the child welfare system,” she said.

Recognizing that the FAR approach is likely to put more demands on community nonprofits, the Department of Social and Health Services has worked with such groups to inform them of the program, Lambert-Eckel said.

West-Fisher said the Empire Health Foundation is working on a computer tool to help social workers make more efficient referrals to nonprofits.

The FAR approach, called differential response, has been successful in other states.

Washington’s Department of Social and Health Services studied other programs and, in a 2008 report to the Legislature, said, “In families served by a differential response system, there tend to be fewer placements and less court involvement with families … Some states showed fewer subsequent reports of child maltreatment. There is general agreement that safety of children is not jeopardized with a differential response system.”

If social workers believe a child’s needs still aren’t being addressed under FAR, the family will be shifted to the traditional investigation model, Lambert-Eckel said. The state will continue to rely on mandatory reporters such as doctors and schools to report suspected child neglect or abuse.

This story has been updated to correct the ZIP code to 99207.
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