Working to put children first

Legal services to ensure child welfare shouldn’t be a political football. To paraphrase Hubert Humphrey, the moral test of government is how it treats those in the dawn of life. That moral test requires adequate funding and administrative support, and the responsibility for this rests with the state.

Finding a permanent home for a child after parental rights have been terminated is a can’t-cut-corners mission. In Washington, the Department of Social and Health Services and the office of the Attorney General play an instrumental role. Unfortunately, the Attorney General’s Legal Services Revolving Fund has been reduced from $79.9 million in 2008 to $62.7 million in the current biennium. The cost cutting included eliminating more than 20 attorneys from the Attorney General’s Children’s Litigation Division in 2010. The chopping has had a ripple effect, accelerating office turnover and, with its paltry salaries, offering little incentive to attract qualified applicants.

Just in the past biennium, the turnover in the Children’s Litigation Division has been nearly 33 percent. The Attorney General’s office notes that in one regional office alone, four out of six staff attorneys have served less than one year. For abused and abandoned children, inconsistent staffing and a longer wait for a permanent home only compounds their misery.

The funding shortfall will be tested as DSHS’ Children’s Administration works on a “permanency push” to move more than 400 additional children to permanent placement over the next six months. It’s a laudable goal, but it will balloon the AG’s Children’s Litigation Division workload by 50 percent.

DSHS Secretary Kevin Quigley and Attorney General Bob Ferguson are working in concert to improve the process. In November, Ferguson organized a meeting with both offices, along with representatives from the courts and the Office of Public Defense to brainstorm strategies for handling the uptick. On Dec. 18, Ferguson and Quigley wrote legislators to underscore the need for additional resources.

“The key to successfully addressing the magnitude of the challenge of ensuring permanency for children who are waiting in the care of the state will be the state’s ability to maintain a sufficient number of experienced assistant attorneys general and required legal support,” they write. “We frankly cannot see a path to success that does not include the legal resources to file, litigate and resolve cases.”

Ferguson and Quigley have requested funding contained in Gov. Jay Inslee’s proposed supplemental budget. The $4.1 million ask isn’t a matter of debate. Placing in permanent homes children who’ve suffered neglect and abuse is a calling that transcends politics. It goes to the heart of a society’s responsibility to its most vulnerable.

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