Regional Public Journalism
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
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."

Proof Of License, Insurance Missing For Volunteers Who Drove Children In State Care

Wikimedia -

A driver’s license and proof of insurance are two basics before getting behind the wheel. But Washington state auditors couldn’t find those documents for four volunteer drivers who ferried foster youth to appointments.

Foster kids have places to go: visits with their biological families, counseling sessions and other court-ordered appointments. In Washington, volunteer drivers often do the shuttling—especially in eastern Washington where there are vast distances to cover.

But an accountability audit by the Washington State Auditor’s Office turned up several red flags. Auditors could not verify proof of insurance for three volunteer drivers. And they were unable to determine if one of the drivers had a current driver’s license. Proof of background checks was also missing for four drivers.

The audit also found two instances in which volunteers allowed family members to transport youth even though those family members were not pre-screened. In addition, five volunteers had not been background checked in the last three years.

In response to the audit, the state’s Children’s Administration notes that the “vast majority of volunteers” had been background checked and were otherwise compliant with the rules. The agency said it will create a “centralized process” for making sure that volunteer background checks and other documents are up to date.

The accountability audit also turned up a number of issues related to travel reimbursement. In fiscal year 2013, 22 volunteer drivers were reimbursed $279,914 for 3,262 trips. However, documents for 1,582 trips totaling $123,933 were unavailable for review because they had been destroyed.

The audit determined that Children’s Administration lacks “adequate internal controls” to make sure payments to volunteer drivers are appropriate. As a result, volunteers were paid for trips that had not been approved, over-reimbursed in 235 instances and sometimes incurred “substantially higher mileage” by traveling outside their home area to perform transports.

The purpose of some trips was also called into question. Volunteers were reimbursed to take youth to attorney offices, to pick up and deliver forms and to travel to embassies in other cities to apply for citizenship.

Children’s Administration acknowledged a lack of “established central policies and procedures” for volunteer travel. The Administration said it does check reimbursement claims by mapping the trips online to see if the mileage adds up.

In its response to the audit, Children’s Administration defended the use of volunteer drivers as “the most cost effective option” for transporting youth.

In 2014, we reported on DSHS’s volunteer driver program. Our investigation found three drivers who had each been reimbursed more than $20,000 for the first nine months of the fiscal year. One driver logged more than 300 miles in a 13 hour day in March 2012. One volunteer told us that she considered driving for DSHS a part-time job and the tax-free mileage reimbursements helped supplement her social security.

A 2012 DSHS internal audit of the volunteer driver program found some volunteers were frequently driving in excess of eight hours per day. One unidentified driver exceeded eight hours of driving 80 percent of the time. The 2012 audit also found some volunteer drivers changed schedules without approval.

Internal emails revealed there was even a term among volunteers for “selling a run,” even though no money was exchanged. That audit resulted in changes to the program, including a new cap on the number of hours a volunteer can drive each day.

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."