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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

Child Abuse Reports Increase; Washington Case Workers Face Down 'Crisis'

Austin Jenkins
Northwest News Network
CPS investigator Xyzlora Brownell says one of the hardest parts of her job is deciding to remove children from their parents.

The agency that oversees child welfare in Washington wants to hire nearly 100 more child protection workers.

But the budget request comes after years of lawsuits that cost the state more than $150 million. Now the question is whether Washington’s Department of Social and Health Services has taken adequate steps to learn from child welfare cases that went awry.

Part of the problem is fresh reports of child abuse and neglect keep pouring in – up 10,000 over the last two years.

'It Truly Is A Crisis'

“No person can do a good job investigating a CPS complaint fully when they have that much new work coming at them,” said Jennifer Strus, head of the DSHS division that oversees CPS. She requested 93 more CPS positions in the next two-year budget.

But Strus knows lawmakers will have a lot of competing needs to pay for.

“I also think we would be remiss not to do that considering we get vilified in the press all the time about not doing this or not doing that and a huge reason for that in these times is lack of staff, lack of resources,” she said.

State Representative Ruth Kagi agreed.

“It truly is a crisis,” she said.

Kagi is a Democrat who chairs the House Human Services Committee. She supports the request for more CPS workers, but acknowledged that quickly swelling the ranks comes with risk.

“You’re always going to have mistakes, especially when you have a lot of brand new caseworkers coming through,” Kagi said.

Costly Mistakes

DSHS has a long record of costly mistakes. Recently, Washington paid nearly $10 million to five children who suffered years of abuse and even starvation despite dozens of complaints to CPS. Seattle attorney David Moody represented those children. He’s made a career suing DSHS for negligence.

“Usually there’s a constellation of warnings that are ignored by a variety of people over a long period of time,” Moody said.

A 2010 study identified errors that were common among DSHS cases that resulted in lawsuits. The report also revealed a major gap: The agency didn’t have a system in place to ensure that lessons learned reached all frontline staff.

DSHS said it continues to “address areas of practice that need improvement.” And it’s gotten outside help to better train its workers. Even so, state Senator Steve O’Ban of Pierce County, is not convinced the agency has overcome its systemic and cultural deficiencies.

“My level of confidence is not high,” he said.

O’Ban is a Republican who chairs the Senate Human Services Committee. He said he won’t pre-judge the request for more staff. But, he added, “There are some major problems there that need to be fixed and throwing more money at it is probably not the fundamental issue.”

Emotional, Pressure-Filled Job

In Shelton, Washington, caseworker Xyzlora Brownell pulled up in front of a rundown mobile home where a single dad is raising an infant with a serious physical disability.

No one was home, and there was a softball-sized hole in the front window of the trailer letting in cold air. Brownell said they’re trying to get the dad and the baby moved somewhere more habitable.

“This is not a great situation for him to be with a newborn,” she said.

As she drove through rural Mason County, Brownell shared her story.

“It scared me originally to think about doing this,” Brownell said.

She recalled when she was an intern tagging along with a CPS investigator who had to locate a family living in the woods.

“We were just tromping through kind of this forestry area, and I was like, ‘So I would be out here by myself doing this?’ And he was like, ‘Yeah.’”

Brownell made up her mind right then. “I was like, ‘wow I can’t do this,’” she said.

But when she graduated in social work it was the job available. Now, Brownell said she can’t imagine doing anything else. The job though takes a toll -- emotionally.

“I had a baby that was in Harborview that almost died because of the abuse,” Brownell said.

She said in this job there’s always pressure. Pressure to make the right decision: keep a family together or remove a child. Pressure to respond to new cases quickly. Pressure to close cases out.

“You know I have several cases that are over 90 days and so every month I have to account as to why those cases remain open,” Brownell explained.

Brownell has 17 open cases. DSHS said a quarter of its caseworkers are juggling more than 25 cases at a time. The national standard is 15.

Her next stop was an unannounced visit on a family that’s the subject of a new complaint. When Brownell arrived, she approached the stepmom on the porch.

“We got a new referral, and so there’s a new investigation that’s opened,” Brownell said.

She received a profanity-laced earful from the stepmom. She listened, took notes and asked questions. Then it was time to go.

Brownell’s investigation is just beginning. She has 30 days to determine if there’s a safety threat to the children.

For Brownell, the hardest part of her job is deciding to remove a child – the first time she did it literally left her shaking.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."