Lowry unveils child protection budget

OLYMPIA - Following the advice of children's experts from across the state, Gov. Mike Lowry and Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) Secretary Lyle Quasim today proposed hiring 132 new social workers and 22 chemical dependency specialists to strengthen Washington's child protection system.

The $24.8 million proposal is part of the Governor's Child Protection package included in the 1996 supplemental budget. Over the past three months, Lowry met with children's experts and DSHS social workers to gather their input on the state's protection system before assembling his budget proposal.

"The overwhelming evidence presented to me by each expert is that we absolutely cannot take care of our most vulnerable children with overloaded and exhausted social workers," Lowry said. "The tragedies we've seen with the death of Lauria Grace and the revelations about OK Boys Ranch are directly tied to the problems of high caseloads, poor monitoring and inadequate substance abuse treatment."

The 132 new social workers will bring the average ratio of cases-to-worker down to 30-to-1, rather than the 36 cases each worker deals with now. The smaller caseload will protect children by allowing workers to spend more time with families and children to evaluate their specific cases and more time to consult with Community Protection Teams (CPTs) in certain cases.

"Remember, each case is a family with problems, and each family has a child or children who may be in trouble," Lowry said. "The best thing we can do for the health and safety of those children is to give them individual attention and have trained professionals figure out what will help them."

The new social workers will be phased in over the remainder of the 1995-97 biennium. Lowry and Quasim also plan to hire 86 additional social workers the following year to reduce the cases-to-worker average ratio to 26-to-1. The Child Welfare League of America, a private advocacy group, recommends that social workers carry a maximum of 15 cases at any one time.

The caseload crisis was highlighted by the Governor's Child Protection Roundtable and the fatality review reports issued earlier this year regarding both the Manson foster home and death of Lauria Grace. Those independent review committees determined that the extremely heavy caseload burden on social workers played a significant role in the placement of those children in deadly situations.

The Grace report also pointed out inadequacies in substance abuse counseling, monitoring and treatment for parents, calling it a "core issue." Currently, 68% of parents or guardians who have had children removed from their homes have substance abuse problems. The 22 new substance abuse specialists Lowry is proposing will help social workers identify substance abuse problems and will work with families and treatment providers to ensure that treatment is followed through.

In addition to new social workers and drug abuse specialists, Lowry's proposal also includes:

The new licensers will complement existing staff to allow for better investigations and monitoring of group and foster homes.

The additional child care licensers will allow for better monitoring and more visitations at both at-home child care sites and large child care centers.

This funding will make services available for families with substance abuse problems.

"You can't deny the evidence and you can't deny the facts," Lowry said. "Every expert agrees: We need more social workers, more oversight and drug treatment for many of these parents."

The additional resources Lowry is proposing will build on the changes Secretary Jean Soliz implemented over the past three years. Those include:

Lowry added that he and his staff have been meeting with an extensive number of children's experts to determine if structural changes within DSHS could lead to better protection of children in the future.

"We need to pursue every avenue for improving the safety of children in this state," Lowry said. "If that is best done by splitting off certain programs or services, we will do that. If that is best done by retaining the existing agency structure, we will do that."

Lowry said he will make a proposal outlining his preferred DSHS structure before the legislative session begins.

The governor will announce his overall supplemental budget request on Dec. 18.


For more information, contact the Governor's Communications Office at 360-753-6790.