Final votes are being tallied this month in a rare election of unionized social workers serving children, youth and families: The Washington employees are calling for the state’s top child welfare official to step down, stating their boss “does not understand the work we do,” perpetuates a “negative reputation” of the field and has not paid enough attention to urgently needed reforms.
Members of the Washington Federation of State Employees, a union representing 47,000 state and public workers, say they are nearing their goal of 1,800 signatures on a vote of no confidence in Secretary Ross Hunter. The union plans to send the results to Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee’s office, urging the governor to replace his appointee to the Department of Children, Youth and Families.
“We’ve seen a lot of news stories regarding youth out of placement, youth staying in hotels and assaults on staff,” said Jeanette Obelcz, a CPS supervisor and union leader. “What’s been missing from that coverage is how these issues have been going on for so long, but haven’t been addressed.”
Jason Wettstein, a spokesperson for Hunter’s office, responded to inquiries through email, stating: “We acknowledge the challenge and demands of work in child welfare and take concerns of staff seriously.” Wettstein added that “Secretary Hunter has been communicating with both the union and individual employees. He will continue to engage employees on the challenges identified.”
Washington state’s child welfare agency employs around 2,800 union workers. Hunter has led the cabinet-level department since its 2017 launch, part of an effort to consolidate state programs serving children.
“In 2018, my office had a lot of youth out of placement, and we met with him about it. Now it’s 2023, and it’s still the same issues.”— Jeanette Obelcz, union leader and CPS supervisor
Hunter’s bio on the state website describes his major career shift. He “invested almost 20 years of his life in the technology arena at a small local firm (Microsoft) back in its early days.” His professional past includes work on “a bunch of incomprehensible Internet technology in the 80s and 90s,” and he “has patents,” the bio reads. He served in the state Legislature for seven years before his current job, which holds him responsible for “issues affecting at-risk children in Washington State.”
Gov. Inslee’s office declined to comment on the ongoing tally of no-confidence votes against his appointee. But his office did defend Hunter’s efforts to create change within the department.
“Several of their requests require legislative action the secretary has advocated for but legislators did not approve,” stated Mike Faulk, a spokesperson for the governor. “Despite his zealous advocacy for the agency’s workforce, the secretary does not have carte blanche; he must work within his authority and funding levels as defined by the Legislature.”
Yet, union leaders say Hunter has been indifferent to their demands, which has led to safety concerns for staff and children. Other issues cited include failure to retain workers, poor advocacy for resources, and a lack of solutions for youth who end up sleeping in hotels and offices because no suitable foster homes are available.
The Washington no-confidence vote is rare, said Julie Collins, a vice president at the Child Welfare League of America. Collins said the last similar vote was in Massachusetts in November 2009, and involved that state’s child welfare commissioner.
“They used the same words as what they’re saying in articles related to Ross,” Collins said, “They don’t feel heard.”
She added that in general, the child welfare field is underfunded and the work performed in foster and group homes, courtrooms and with families is “one of the toughest and hardest jobs that you can do.”
The Washington Federation of State Employees has held only one other vote of no confidence, union officials said. The vote took place in 2011, after Denise Revels Robinson, the former state Children’s Administration director, was appointed amid controversy over a prior position in Wisconsin. Her time in Washington quickly turned acrimonious when the union said she was “farming out” their work to private agencies statewide, and targeting employees who questioned her direction, according to a letter written by a union task force to Children’s Administration employees.
After the vote, then Department of Social and Health Services Secretary Susan Dreyfus defended Robinson, calling her the “finest child welfare director in America.” Robinson eventually stepped down before the creation of the new department.
“Despite his zealous advocacy for the agency’s workforce, the secretary does not have carte blanche; he must work within his authority and funding levels as defined by the Legislature.”— Mike Faulk, spokesperson for gov. Jay Inslee
One major complaint against Hunter is poor employee retention, a problem plaguing similar agencies nationwide that does not appear to be as acute in Washington as elsewhere, some data show. A 2022 legislative policy paper released by the Child Welfare League of America states that national “caseworker turnover and vacancies are reaching crisis levels,” with turnover rates averaging between 23% and 60% for social workers.
In Washington, turnover rates have reached about 18%, according to Obelcz. “They’re putting out the fires, but they’re not going beyond that.” Obelcz described the turnover rate as among the highest of all the state’s agencies.
The union vote in Washington is not tied to any contract negotiations. In July, members received a significant pay increase that amounts to a 7% cost-of-living adjustment over two years, and will raise pay by 10% for some staff.
Lawyers representing foster children recently achieved a high-profile legal settlement with the state’s child welfare department concerning care for children “out of placement” who were housed in unlicensed settings. The May 2023 settlement with the state ended a two-year battle over young people left to sleep in hotels and offices. Under the settlement, Washington has committed to spending $5.2 million on reforms that include an Emerging Adulthood Housing Program, training foster parents to better care for older youth with complex needs, and the creation of hub homes, a model developed by the nonprofit Mockingbird Society.
The union’s Obelcz said the ongoing concerns of members relate to the lack of attention and slow progress by the director.
“In 2018, my office had a lot of youth out of placement, and we met with him about it,” she said. “Now it’s 2023, and it’s still the same issues. He doesn’t meet with us, he puts off meetings. To me and the members I represent, it felt like there was no other option.”