SEATTLE – Washington state is struggling to meet all the requirements of a landmark lawsuit intended to improve foster-care services for children.
But even as lawmakers and the state Department of Social and Health Services struggle to find fixes for what’s known as the Braam lawsuit settlement, the state’s foster-care system is experiencing a big reduction in foster homes.
The Seattle Times reported Monday that the state now has about 1,000 fewer licensed foster homes than it did in 2007.
Filed in 1998, the Braam lawsuit is named for plaintiff Jessica Braam, who was moved through 34 foster-care placements by the time the complaint was filed.
The state has met most of the benchmarks to improve its foster-care system that came from a 2004 settlement of the lawsuit.
But seven have not been met as of September, and DSHS has recently slid backward on three of those: the average caseload being handled by social workers, and the goals of caregiver training and support provided to foster parents.
A the same time, the number of licensed foster-care homes in Washington stood at 4,946 in October, down from 5,965 in 2007, according to state data.
The shortage means that the state doesn’t always have the best home placement for a child, according to Jennifer Strus, assistant secretary for the Children’s Administration at DSHS.
The state would prefer to have about 6,000 foster homes, officials said.
Mike Canfield, executive director for the Foster Parents Association of Washington State, said he worries that some of the decline comes from long-term foster parents that the state relies upon.
“When we lose those, that’s a sign that the system’s distressed,” Canfield said.
The stakes involved in whether Washington has a well-functioning foster-care system are high, according to Patrick Dowd, director of the state’s Office of the Family and Children’s Ombuds.
Poorly served foster children can struggle in school, or can suffer from or develop mental-health or substance issues, and possibly wind up being incarcerated later in life, he said.
The Braam settlement required 90 percent of social workers to carry a caseload of no more than 18 children. But only 82 percent of social workers met that average in the first half of 2015 – down from 86 percent in the previous six-month reporting period.
Strus said the agency is having trouble recruiting and keeping social workers. When a social worker leaves, that workers’ caseload is distributed among others, raising the average, she said.
It’s not clear why the number of licensed foster homes in Washington has trended downward.
Some of the decline could be attributed to foster families adopting the children in their care, or children finding a home with relatives.
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