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Published: Saturday, January 26, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Guest Commentary / New agency leadership

Dedicated group on DSHS front lines

Last week, I started my job as Secretary of the Department of Social and Health Services. I owe an inspiring first couple days to Justin, Rachel, April, Dayna, Valerie and Codie, investigators on the front line of Child Protective Services.
Gov. Jay Inslee makes protecting children and other vulnerable people a priority for DSHS. Following his lead, I headed to the front line and visited CPS offices in Olympia/Tumwater, Tacoma and Seattle. I met with CPS investigators. I encouraged them to speak freely, and I believe they did. Intelligent (all with bachelor's or master's degrees), articulate and committed, these investigators all emanated a commitment to children.
Imagine these six courageous investigators. Typically travelling solo, sometimes in pairs, they walk into places, sometimes of alleged violence, frequently of known troubling background and all too often beset by issues ranging from deep poverty to drugs and mental illness. The locations can be deep in rural areas where the isolation heightens the feeling of vulnerability. One investigator told a story of being asked to enter a home first -- ahead of police. For all of the investigators I spoke with, safety was a real-world, everyday issue.
I also met separately with the investigators' supervisors, Sydney, Cleveland, Thom and Ken; another inspiring group. Of the roughly 75,000 calls to Children's Administration each year, about half require investigation. Each call is answered by an intake worker who, together with the supervisor, determines whether the information will screen in for a response by an investigator and a response time of 24 hours, 72 hours, or, in very low-risk cases, 10 days. The 24- and 72-hour cases are then assigned to individual investigators based on their current workload, severity, and how emotionally draining their recent cases have been.
After the initial visit, a structured assessment is applied to systematically assess safety and risk of children in the home. Working with their supervisor, the CPS investigators must sometimes, thankfully rarely, make an immediate call that the child is in imminent danger. The investigators never have discretion to remove a child on their own; their job is to make a case, based on the evidence, that the child is at "imminent risk of harm" and request that law enforcement place the child in protective custody. The Department can also request immediate action from a local court. The investigator completes an investigation, which is the product of many additional contacts, often with neighbors, school personnel, medical professionals, relatives and friends of the family.
I found a deep well of respect from CPS investigators for their supervisors and a couple supervisors in particular who were particularly inspiring to them. There was also solid respect for the area administrators, who manage the supervisors and the nuts and bolts of the child welfare program.
Above the area administrators, we at headquarters are, put charitably, more of a mystery to the front-line team. But the senior Children's Administration team has been very successful in improving the child welfare system, increasing tracking and improving response times, all with 20 percent fewer administrative staff.
There appear to be some forms and process we can eliminate and the Lean process we will engage in will deliver new benefits. We will also need to enhance continuous quality improvement and close out investigations more quickly, and we will. That said, it is a solid system powered by great people; and for someone in your shoes and mine that's great news.
Sad to say, a storm will come, heartbreak will strike, and these hard-working, heroic folks will take another shot. But in this calm moment it seemed right to share an improved understanding of the system and the people who are right behind parents on the front line that protects our kids.

Kevin W. Quigley is Secretary of the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services. Gov. Jay Inslee appointed him to the post on Jan. 16, 2013.

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