Standing up for social workers and the kids they must protect

Foster kids sleeping in cars. Escapes and fentanyl distribution in juvenile detention facilities. Violent attacks on overworked social workers. Tragic and preventable deaths of kids. These are just a few of the most recent high-profile failures of Washington’s child welfare system.

The number of deaths involving children who either were or had been recently under the supervision of Department of Children, Youth, and Families is shockingly high. A recently published report from the state Office of the Family and Children’s Ombuds found 39 of 85 deaths resulted from “mistreatment.”

Fentanyl exposure was also a significant risk.

Travis Couture

The report looked at 85 child deaths and 62 near fatalities and found over a quarter (22) of those deaths and more than half (34) of the near fatalities involved accidental ingestion or overdose, with more than 67% involving fentanyl. The latest quarterly report from DCYF that looked at data for the first quarter of 2023 showed “There were eight incidents of children nearly dying from ingesting fentanyl or opioids.”

The agency says these numbers only get worse.

There have been multiple examples of tragedies involving children who either were or had been under DCYF supervision. Among them is the case of 4-year-old Oakley Carlson, whose parents are the prime suspects in her 2021 disappearance in Grays Harbor. Earlier this year, a one-year-old girl in Snohomish County died of fentanyl poisoning in an Everett hotel room after being left in the care of her mother despite fierce opposition from the little girl’s grandmother. This year, a Tacoma mother brutally tortured and murdered her 3-year-old son while abusing meth – while under CPS supervision. I passed a bill last session to assist social workers in protecting kids from malnutrition after Karreon Franks – a 15-year-old child with autism who weighed 70 pounds at the time of his death – was abused by his parents over the course of 3 years of CPS visits.

These stories should outrage us all – and tragically, they are nothing new.

The Legislature created DCYF in 2017 amid mounting criticism that the former agency doing this work – DSHS – failed to protect children. Sadly, the newly formed agency hasn’t properly advocated for increased safety for their employees, or as preventable child fatalities increase, the safety of children in homes with parents who abuse hard drugs.

These problems are worsened with severe staffing shortages, excessive overtime, social workers assigned unmanageably high caseloads, and workers placed in increasingly dangerous situations. For years, workers say they have lobbied DCYF Secretary Ross Hunter to address their concerns, but nothing has changed.

Criticism came to a head over the summer when the Washington Federation of State Employees (WFSE), a union that represents most DCYF workers, organized a vote of no confidence in Hunter. According to one WFSE leader, “It boils down to the feeling that he does not understand what we do and doesn’t have an interest in understanding what we do. So, we aren’t getting the resources we need to do our jobs, which means that we aren’t getting the resources to keep children safe.”

This session I am proposing legislation that would ensure the assault of a social worker becomes a felony, the same protection we provide our state ferry workers, and to allow social workers to be accompanied by first responders if they reasonably believe a situation could be potentially dangerous. Finally, we make it easier to remove children from homes where there is an active opioid or methamphetamine using parent causing an imminent harm to their child.

The majority party has previously declined to pass Republican solutions on these issues. We must put politics and radical ideology aside this coming session and do what is necessary to protect both our social workers and innocent children.

Rep. Travis Couture serves as the assistant ranking member on the House Human Services, Youth, and Early Learning Committee, is a member of the Education Committee, and serves as the assistant ranking member on the House Appropriations Committee.

This op-ed appeared in the Kitsap Sun on October 15, 2023: Standing up for social workers and the kids they must protect.

State Representative Travis Couture, 35th Legislative District
404 John L. O'Brien Building | P.O. Box 40600 | Olympia, WA 98504-0600
(360) 786-7902 | Toll-free: (800) 562-6000