The head of the Washington state child welfare agency on Friday announced support for a bill now sitting on the desk of Gov. Jay Inslee (D) that would make it harder for the state to remove children from parents’ homes and place them in foster care.
The director of the state Department of Children, Youth and Families, Ross Hunter, issued a statement on Friday that endorses House Bill 1227, saying the current standard the agency uses for removal, based on the current law, is “outdated” and often unjustly applied to Black and Indigenous people.
HB 1227, primarily sponsored by state Rep. Lillian Ortiz-Self (D), would tighten the standard that child protective services officials must prove to justify removal. If Inslee signs the bill, they must show that a child faces potentially “imminent” physical harm from abuse or neglect, including sexual abuse, sexual exploitation or a pattern of severe neglect. Currently, child welfare officials must show a judge proof of a “serious threat of substantial harm.”
The bill would also ensure that services be available to parents who want them, and if children must be removed, the department must prioritize placing them with relatives. The agency also would be required to offer financial support to relatives who step into the primary caretaking role and help them become licensed foster parents.
The bill also prevents the state from removing children because of certain conditions in the home — including poverty, inadequate housing, a parent’s mental illness and substance use — unless there is a specific connection to such a danger.
The bill aims to build on Washington’s ongoing efforts to safely reduce the number of children who are removed from their homes — a number that has fallen by nearly one-third since 2017.
“The changes proposed by HB1227 are fully in line with our intention to safely reduce the number of children in out-of-home care and provide a pathway to do that,” Hunter said in Friday’s statement.
“Keeping children at home, when it is safe to do so, is our top priority, and this bill reorients the system toward prevention,” Hunter stated. “This bill will hold us accountable to deliver prevention services, be diligent in pursuing alternatives to out-of-home placements, and keep children within their communities.”
The bill, which emerged amid a growing national effort to highlight research showing that lifelong trauma can result from breaking up families, passed both legislative houses nearly unanimously.
“It’s a start,” said Shrounda Selivanoff, kinship caregiver and public policy director for the Children’s Home Society of Washington, in a comment to the Seattle Times. “But we’ve got more work to do.”
Nationally, many states’ child welfare policies are also shifting the emphasis from foster care placement to helping families prevent abuse and poverty-related neglect before it takes root. Although many people think most foster cases are driven by abuse, statistics show that far more investigations start with suspected neglect, such as when a parent leaves young children at home while they go to work.