Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) signed a bill in July to create a new cabinet-level agency to oversee the children’s issues in the state based on the recommendations of the Washington State Blue Ribbon Commission on the Delivery of Services to Children and Families.
The new Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF) will include three agencies — the Department of Early Learning, the Children’s Administration and Juvenile Rehabilitation — with the goal of changing how the state serves at-risk children and youth.
DCYF will not fully take charge of the state’s Children’s Administration and Department of Early Learning until July 2018. The department of Juvenile Rehabilitation and the Office of Juvenile Justice won’t be under the purview of DCYF until July 2019.
Under the reorganization efforts, the state has placed a new emphasis on supporting families before crises happen in an effort to reduce removals to foster care. A big part of the new focus on prevention and early intervention will be leveraging the state’s recent investments in early childhood education, such as its high-quality, state-funded preschool program.
The man who will be charged with retooling Washington’s child welfare system to focus on prevention is Ross Hunter, who was named secretary of the new agency in July. Before being picked to lead DCYF, Hunter had been the director of the state’s Department of Early Learning. He also served as a state senator, and was one of the first employees at Microsoft.
In a recent conversation with The Imprint, Hunter talked about why he took the job and why the federal-state funding dynamic needs to change in child welfare.
What convinced you to take this job?
When the governor asked me to do this, I was a little skeptical because I liked the mission of the Department of Early Learning. It was clear and concise. I felt like it had a clear pathway to get a lot of really important work done for kids.
While working on the [Washington State Blue Ribbon] Commission…we spent a lot of time looking at data and what got me analytically was the overlap between populations. We have a state-run preschool program, a pretty high-quality program, and it’s similar to Head Start in many ways. It’s focus has a lot of antipoverty elements, a two-generation approach, a high-quality curriculum, high-end teachers.
It’s pretty effective at making a change in kindergarten readiness, but what I found out was that over 22 percent of the kids who were eligible for our program are currently involved in the child welfare system.
So more than one in five kids have a lot of trauma in their household that requires an investigation from child protective services, and I’m guessing that a larger fraction of that had the same level of trauma going on. It just hadn’t been reported and that kind of freaked me out. It’s like, wait a minute. Like, how are we going to be successful at getting our education levels to the point where we want where we think kids can be successful if they’ve got all this other trauma going on in their lives? And so, I become intellectually interested in how do I get ahead of that and start drafting in more prevention work.
An overlap between the juvenile justice population and the child welfare population is even more striking. Seventy-eight percent of the kids in our biggest facility have been involved in the child welfare system. I think it’s just crazy. You’ve got all of the same dysfunction that’s everywhere else with racial disproportionality. Every single step of the way, it gets worse.
That matters because I’m a numbers guy. I’m a former database computer scientist guy and I worked at Microsoft for almost 20 years doing data stuff and that’s part of it.
Washington has seen the number of kids in foster care increase in recent years, as the number of foster homes in the state has sharply decreased. As a result, many foster children have temporarily stayed in hotels or offices, a situation that some leaders labeled “a placement crisis.” Do you have a sense of what has been behind these trends and any things that you’d like to see changed to address the issue?
There’s both short- and long-term issues here. The long-term term issue is the arrival rate; the number of calls to our child abuse hotline has gone up significantly. It’s going up faster than population growth and I have guesses as to why, but I don’t really know why that’s happening. It could be the opioid crisis. It could be just the sort of divergence of economic outcomes for the top quarter of the population and everybody else.
It’s just growing too fast and we shift resources to respond to child abuse calls because we want them. What’s actually worse on many of these is that the number of calls that we have a deep timeliness concern about has gone up. So the acuity of the problem has gone up.
Then on the tail end, our exits have slowed down and I don’t know why. Again, it could be because of this opioid crisis.
It could be that our turnover is too high and every time we have to change a caseworker on a case, we probably lose six months. So, all of those things contribute to a slowdown in exits and that means that we have more kids in out-of-home care and that the kids are in out-of-home care for longer, which is bad for them and it’s bad for the system because it raises caseloads.
We are concerned about this. Every other state is concerned about this. They’re all having the same problem. I mean there may be some miracle state out there that doesn’t have this problem, but I don’t live in it.
But you just have a volume increase and the foster care system does not respond quickly. Recruitment is largely word of mouth and, you know, I actually don’t think huge billboards actually produce new foster families. I mean, I think what produces new foster families is people who know somebody else and they talk to them at church or they talk to them at Rotary and they have a good experience and somebody says, ‘Well, I’ve been thinking about that,’ and they give them a card and we get them connected.
Stuff we’re doing on that is both on the recruitment and on the retention end, and I think retention is most important because it is always cheaper and more effective to hold on to your partners than it is to generate new ones.
We’ll be doing work to try and improve our communications with them, to try and be more transparent about the decision-making just to sort of make our foster families happier. We want to treat them like the valuable partners they are. We’re hoping we can slow down them leaving the system and then we’ve also asked the legislature for some funds to help us invest in automating the whole sign-up process.
There’s just a lot of dissatisfaction about that. People lose records. I got caseworkers losing people’s files. We got to ask them to resubmit. It drives people crazy and we’re going to try and do what San Francisco and some other places have done is automate the sign-up with a web-based sign-up system so you can see every document that you put in. Nothing ever gets lost. The whole system just works better.
How much does Congress’s failure to reauthorize funding the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program (MIECHV) and Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) concern you?
Child welfare, child well-being is a bipartisan thing and I’ve been on the partisan end. I was a budget chairman for five years in the [Washington state] legislature. I spent a lot of time being the lead Democrat arguing with the lead Republican about how we were going to spend billions of dollars and a lot of that was partisan stuff. Now, I admit that … particularly at the federal level, things seem very partisan, but I think eventually that stuff is going to get funded and hopefully, it gets funded before the states run out of money, particularly on the CHIP side.
MIECHV for us is about 10 million bucks a year, right and would I miss that? Absolutely, because it’s dedicated to funding a lot of evidence-based home-visiting programs, but would I miss CHIP more? Yeah, you bet. If we don’t have the base medical care for children and families, we’d be in a world of hurt and a lot of the stuff that I’m doing now starts looking sort of pointless.
Are there any federal policy changes you would like to see to kind of encourage greater focus on prevention within child welfare systems? I’m thinking about the Family First Prevention Act — is that type of legislation something you would like to see reintroduced?
I think that the idea behind the Family First Prevention Act is a great idea and I’m not up to speed enough on the details of it to say, ‘Well, I like this, but not that.’ I don’t have that level of knowledge at the federal level of the legislation.
The problem that we have is core to how IV-E funding works. We get funding from the federal government for kids who are in foster care. That’s great. It’s a core part of our funding. It is hundreds of millions of dollars. I can’t live without that funding. If I am successful at running prevention programs, I have fewer kids in foster care. So, say, I use some of the IV-E money to do prevention and it reduces the number of kids in foster care. It’s a success. It works.
But I lose money now. I lose the money that I was paying that I was getting to pay for the stuff that I’m doing to reduce the number of kids in foster care I get. Everyone I’ve talked to recognizes this as a structural problem. We saw this in the K-12 system here in Washington and fixed it almost 15 years ago where we were giving schools that had low reading scores extra money, so and they would use that money to run reading programs and that would improve the reading scores and then they take the money away.
I would love them to come up with an approach where the money was more driven by the demographics of the problem rather than your solution. So if I got money based on the demographics of the state, I’m kind of an average state. I’d probably get an average amount of money. And then if I’m super effective at using the money to do prevention, I wind up having more money to spend on prevention because I’m spending less of it on foster care and I can sort of drive the money into ways that are more effective if I know that the money is going to be stable.
But if I know that if I’m effective, I’ll wind up having fewer kids in foster care and I’ll have less money and then I wind up in this cycle that all of a sudden, I can’t afford to support the prevention programs. So, doing reform of IV-E would be the highest priority piece for me in that work.