Foster parents call for improved child welfare laws in Washington

Foster parents call for improved child welfare laws in Washington

Foster parents call for improved child welfare laws in Washington

Posted on February 6, 2024

OLYMPIA, Wash. — About a dozen foster parents gathered on Tuesday on the steps of the state Capitol in Olympia to call for change. They say the state should do more to protect children and would like to see changes to what they say is a harmful state law.

They are referring to the Keeping Families Together Act (HB 1227) which went into effect in July 2023.

“We call it the Keeping Families Together Act, but we are doing the exact opposite,” said Tracie Jefferson, who has been a foster parent for three years.

The law states that the existence of issues such as inadequate housing or substance abuse does not by itself constitute imminent physical harm to a child.

“We're not keeping families together. Families are being torn apart by death and by tragedy,” said Jefferson. “So, we're calling on the Capitol to help us change this.”

Jefferson said she believes the law contributed to the death of an infant in Port Townsend last month. Court documents show the baby was left in the care of his father, who ended up skipping drug testing and was arrested in relation to the baby’s death.

State data shows in 2022 that about a fourth of the 85 kids who died under state supervision had ingested drugs, many of those fentanyl.

"We know it’s not safe and we have to do the right thing for our kids,” said Jefferson.

The “Keeping Families Together” Act was sponsored by Rep. Lillian Ortiz-Self of Mukilteo. She said she believes people misunderstood the intent of the law and said the law has made positive changes to keep kids from being unnecessarily taken from their families.

"We've had some people say, ‘Well, it puts the burden on the department to prove imminent harm,’” said Ortiz-Self. “Of course, who should the burden be put on? Of course, it's on the department, on the state. If we're going to take your child away, we need to prove imminent harm.”

But Ortiz-Self believes some judges found the wording of the law ambiguous, which is why she said she is in favor of House Bill 2447.

The bill would ensure judges and case workers know "any imminent physical harm to the child outweighs the harm the child will experience as a result of removal" and that fentanyl use can count as imminent harm.

“We want to make sure it's clear if a substance abuse causes imminent risk, we want the child removed. We don't want any child in danger,” said Ortiz-Self.

The sponsor of House Bill 2447 is Rep. Tana Senn, who said in a statement that the bill gives "giving clear guidance that when considering removing a child from their family, great weight must be given to the lethality of fentanyl when determining if a child could be imminently harmed by staying home.”

“It will take a multi-pronged approach to prevent ongoing deaths—including educating our residents, our courts and the rest of the child welfare system on the lethality of fentanyl," Senn's statement said in part.

KING 5 reached out to the Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) about concern over the law. The agency said the Keeping Families Together Act is "the right law."

"Every day child welfare case workers are working diligently with families to keep children safe and prevent unnecessary removals," according to a DCYF statement. "The new law is achieving its goal of safely preventing many children from being placed into foster care and keeping families together."

DCYF said cases involving fentanyl are a challenge for staff and that the agency has seen a "dramatic increase in child fatalities and near fatalities involving fentanyl due to young children accidentally ingesting the drug.”

The agency also said it is in favor of House Bill 2447 and Senate Bill 6109, as the bills are "essential to keeping children safe and preventing children from being placed into foster care.”


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