An effort by unionized Washington social workers to oust the state’s top child welfare official will not move forward, after a months-long effort to rally voting members failed to garner enough support.
A spokesperson for the Washington Federation of State Employees, a union representing 2,800 Department of Children, Youth and Families employees and thousands of other state workers, said this week that it was ending its campaign to call for a “no-confidence” in the department’s secretary, Ross Hunter. The final results fell several hundred votes short of the two-thirds majority that would have been required to appeal to Gov. Jay Inslee for Hunter’s resignation.
Union members who work in the state’s child welfare agency mounted the effort to force Hunter out earlier this year, describing his department as lacking in support for its staff amid the many challenges they confront; perpetuating a “negative reputation” of the field and failing to pay enough attention to urgently needed reforms. The no-confidence resolution that went before union members accused management of “negligence” due to its inability to keep children and staff safe in hazardous settings such as unlicensed placements where older foster youth are being housed.
The final vote tallies did not discourage one prominent union leader, who nonetheless called the election effort a success. Social worker and supervisor Jeanette Obelcz, who chairs a union policy committee focused on child welfare issues, said the campaign has resulted in a productive meeting between Hunter and union leaders.
“Even though there are still significant issues and concerns with Secretary Hunter, he has made some signals that he’s willing to work with us more now,” Obelcz said in an interview.
She added that Department of Children, Youth and Families Secretary Hunter — appointed to the cabinet-level position in 2017 — has expressed support for the hiring of additional staff and for improving working conditions.
“This wasn’t just wanting to have someone fired,” Obelcz said. “It’s really making sure that we have leadership who respects us, who understands what we do, and who’s willing to listen to the boots on the ground so that we can get the resources that we need to keep kids safe.”
Jason Wettstein, a spokesperson for Hunter’s office, responded to an inquiry about the vote through email. He confirmed the union’s assessment of the state of communication.
“There has been productive conversation with the union and agency leadership over recent weeks, and we look forward to more progress and productive work in the future in support of union members and our staff,” Wettstein stated.
Washington social workers began their union effort to seek Hunter’s ouster in June, citing a disconnect between the senior leadership of the Department of Children, Youth and Families and its frontline workers.
State social workers interviewed by The Imprint have said that staff vacancies and high caseloads have led to safety concerns, such as assaults of social workers by disturbed youth, and a rise in the number of young children who accidentally ingest fentanyl or opioids. Like states across the country, Washington has also struggled with placing older youth in foster homes, resulting in the use of hotels and offices where a lack of supervision can become hazardous.
Other ongoing concerns center on recruitment and retention shortfalls as well as implementing new child welfare reforms, such as a recent law meant to prevent family separation.
While the concerns are not uncommon nationwide, the union effort is noteworthy. In August, Julie Collins, vice president at the Child Welfare League of America, said it’s rare for child welfare workers to mount a campaign to unseat their boss. The last time such a vote was conducted was an effort to fire a Massachusetts child welfare commissioner in November 2009, she said.
“They used the same words as what they’re saying in articles related to Ross,” Collins said. “They don’t feel heard.”
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