True sea change in a government system doesn’t happen often. It’s even rarer when it occurs in just a few years. But that is exactly what’s going on in the under-examined world of foster care.
Today, there are about 6,130 children being raised by state-supported caregivers who are not their parents, one of the lowest numbers in 40 years. In King County, annual filings plummeted by more than half between 2017 and 2022.
That is no accident. The drumbeat behind this change has been accelerating, in Washington and nationally, because the adult-life outcomes of foster youth — increased likelihood of incarceration, poverty and homelessness — are generally miserable. And they are visited disproportionately on Black and Indigenous children. So it’s long past time to step back and reassess just who goes into the system and why.
A new state law taking effect this summer will likely push the numbers even lower. But its success depends on the availability of a robust, responsive safety net of high-quality services. That’s the rub.
The law, known as the Keeping Families Together Act, narrows allowable reasons for removing children from their homes. No longer are a parent’s struggles with drug addiction, or a history of investigation by Child Protective Services sufficient. Instead, caseworkers will need to prove that physical harm is imminent — not just possible — if the child stays at home.
Further, if a kid does need to be removed for their safety, the state must work “diligently” to find a relative who can care for them, rather than a stranger. (Leaving a voicemail and hoping for a call back is not going to cut it.) Those relatives, once identified, will be entitled to the same kind of financial support that foster parents get — about $1,600 a month, per child.
The motivation for these changes is on target. Decades of brain research have proved that simply being taken into foster care is a major trauma itself, separate from anything that preceded it.
The problem is, moms and dads who are without stable housing or money for food, who have mental health or substance abuse problems, need substantial help. And Washington does not yet have a robust system of high-quality services ready for them.
“Frankly, there are gaps everywhere,” said Patrick Dowd, who monitors Washington’s child welfare system as director of the Office of Families and Children Ombuds.
There were major promises to plug those holes during the just-completed Legislative session, especially in housing and behavioral health. That will be critical to the success of this initiative. Meanwhile, the Department of Children, Youth and Families says it’s already shrunk foster care without compromising kids’ safety.
That’s debatable. Between 2019 and 2022, right around the time this shift was taking root, near-fatalities of children attributed to maltreatment more than doubled. And in families who were reported to CPS but never investigated, child deaths increased by 50% between 2019 and 2021, according to data from Dowd’s office.
There are ways to shrink foster care safely. The best way would create a social safety net strong enough that families get help before they ever show up on CPS’ radar.
Next best: inpatient drug treatment programs where parents can live with their young children, such as Evergreen Recovery Centers in Everett and Rising Strong in Spokane.
Other ideas? The state could provide support to families and children who have been reunited — as is already happening to a limited degree through a new housing program.
The reevaluation of foster care has been a long time coming. But getting this right means much more than winning an argument, because the cost of getting it wrong could be fatal.