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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Editorial: Foster care challenges emerge

Foster care cutbacks during the recession could have an impact on Washington state’s bottom line, just as the governor’s office puts the finishing touches on its supplemental budget requests for the upcoming legislative session.

It’s similar to the state’s challenge in meeting its obligations for mental health patients. Lawmakers balanced a budget in the short term by ignoring a basic obligation. Then the courts stepped in.

Adding to the challenge is the news that the state has about 1,000 fewer foster homes than it did in 2007, according to a Seattle Times article published Monday. That revelation comes as the state struggles to satisfy some of the requirements from a 1998 lawsuit.

The Whatcom County lawsuit was named for the lead plaintiff, Jessica Braam. At the time of the filing, the 12-year-old girl had been placed in 34 homes. The state settled the suit in 2004, agreeing to accept oversight and make changes to the system.

The Department of Social and Health Services has made progress in most areas, but it did not reach some targets by September and actually regressed in three areas: average social worker caseload, caregiver training and support for foster parents, according to the Times.

This lack of support could explain the drop in foster care homes. DSHS would like to have 6,000 homes, but as of October it had 4,946. As a result, the agency may not have an ideal placement for a child.

In addition, funding for troubleshooters who aided foster parents was a casualty of recessionary budget cutting. Being a foster parent isn’t easy, and that help can be invaluable.

The state may also need to streamline licensing and reimbursement for foster parents. Advocates say both are too cumbersome.

The state cut 312 social worker positions after 2008 and restored a small fraction of them in the current operating budget, according to DSHS. Not enough to lower caseloads appreciably.

High caseloads raise the risk that children will become a drain on other government services, rather than productive citizens.

The agency is requesting $3.1 million to meet the requirements of the Braam settlement.

Budget writers are already facing big-ticket requests to boost funding for preventing and fighting wildfires and to fulfill court-ordered requirements to fully fund basic education.

The state’s latest economic forecast, issued two weeks ago, said the Legislature faces a $455 million shortfall between revenue collections and scheduled payouts in programs and wages.

The bad news about foster care won’t be welcomed, but it also can’t be ignored.

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