A new department to better serve children, youth, families

Inslee signs bill to improve services for at-risk children and youth, appoints department’s director

Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill Thursday to restructure how the state serves at-risk children and youth by creating the Department of Children, Youth and Families. The governor also appointed Ross Hunter, director of the state’s Department of Early Learning, to lead DCYF.

The new agency, after a yearlong transition period that begins this month, will oversee several services now offered through the state Department of Social and Health Services and the Department of Early Learning. These include all programs from the Children’s Administration in DSHS such as Child Protective Services, the Family Assessment Response program and adoption support, as well as all DEL services, including the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program for preschoolers and Working Connections Child Care.

Starting in July 2019, the new department also will administer programs offered by the Juvenile Rehabilitation office and the Office of Juvenile Justice in DSHS. Those programs include juvenile rehabilitation institutions, community facilities and parole services.

Gov. Jay Inslee signs a bill Thursday to create the new Washington State Department of Children, Youth and Families. (Official Governor’s Office Photo)

The creation of the new department follows the suggestions of the bipartisan Blue Ribbon Commission on the Delivery of Services to Children and Families convened by the governor in February 2016 to recommend a state system that focuses more clearly on preventing harm to children and youth. Washington’s Legislature expressed interest in restructuring during the 2016 legislative session, prompting the governor to issue the executive order creating the blue ribbon commission, of which Hunter was a member.

Last month, as lawmakers continued to negotiate a state operating budget, Inslee met with foster parents, youth and advocates to push for the new department. He heard from people who have been in the foster care system who said that a standardization of services and more support for foster families are needed.

Gov. Jay Inslee talks with supporters of a new Washington State Department of Children, Youth and Families following the signing of a bill Thursday that creates the new department. (Official Governor’s Office Photo)

Inslee said that the way the government is organized signals what its priorities are. Placing all state children’s services in one agency will amplify attention and resources on improving outcomes, promoting more accountability and heightening the importance of children’s issues.

“We want to prevent harm to children and youth rather than just react to it,” Inslee said. “The vision for this department comes right out of the bill itself: that Washington’s children and youth grow up safe and healthy — thriving physically, emotionally and academically — and are nurtured by family and community.”

Other states have had success with this approach. New Jersey, Wisconsin and Tennessee, for example, have set up departments dedicated solely to serving children and families. These agencies have displayed more accountability and more easily made policy improvements while spotlighting the importance of these services to reach more families in need.

Creating a smooth transition

The new law creates an Office of Innovation, Alignment and Accountability in DCYF that will oversee the transition to the new department. It also creates an oversight board for the new department to ensure it meets its goals.

Hunter will leave his position at DEL to assume his new duties at DCYF beginning Aug. 1. In the coming weeks, the governor’s office will appoint an acting director to replace Hunter at DEL, which will be eliminated by July 2018 once its programs have transitioned to the new department.

DSHS has long been the state’s primary vehicle for serving children, youth and families. But it also plays a major role in a number of other areas, such as administering Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, long-term care, services for people with developmental disabilities, state psychiatric facilities, nutrition services and vocational rehabilitation — and it will continue to do so even after DCYF is fully operational.

Ross Hunter, director of the Washington State Department of Early Learning, on a recent visit to a KidSpace Extended Day Care program. Hunter was selected by Gov. Jay Inslee to lead the state’s new Department of Children, Youth and Families. (Photo courtesy of the Department of Early Learning)

Hunter, a former state representative and Microsoft executive, was appointed director of DEL by Inslee in September 2015. Hunter has strong leadership skills and a passion for serving children. He chaired the House Appropriations Committee for several years, helping to negotiate three biennial state budgets, and was instrumental in the passage of the Early Start Act in 2015 and funding the expansion of the Foster Care to Age 21 program.

Hunter said he is honored to be chosen for the role.

“It’s not every day you get a chance to create a new agency, one that lets us address many of the ideas employees have had for years on how to improve the delivery of services and generate better outcomes for kids and families,” he said. “Recent science about how young brains develop allows us to rethink many long-held beliefs and invest upstream, preventing harm to young people.”

Hunter said one of the transition team’s first tasks will be collaborating with everyone involved in the child welfare system, including state workers, the courts, tribes, local service providers, families and foster parents.

One of Hunter’s priorities is to make sure services for children and families are uninterrupted and that the state employees who serve them also experience a smooth transition. He added that there are no plans to cut staff during the process; if anything, more resources will be added.

“Our goal is to do this so smoothly that the transition is not abrupt on July 1 of next year,” Hunter said. “I am excited for the challenges and opportunities ahead.”

(Courtesy of the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services)