Inslee kicks off new Department of Children, Youth, and Families

State agency will take preventative approach to child welfare, help children and families overcome barriers to success

Gov. Jay Inslee was joined today by youth, family advocates and state leaders to celebrate the launch of the state’s new Department of Children, Youth, and Families. The agency’s opening on July 1 was the culmination of a two-year effort to transform the way Washington serves at-risk children and families.

Not only does the new department bring together early learning and child welfare services previously housed at separate state agencies, it supports the philosophy in Washington state that all children get an equal opportunity to succeed and that families benefit when services and policies take a preventative approach to problems, Inslee said.

“We shouldn’t be waiting until a child is harmed to step in. There’s so much we can do starting as early as a mother’s pregnancy to reduce the chances of harm to children and increase the chances they can succeed in school and in life,” Inslee said. “By bringing together the staff who work most with children and families, we’re going to be much better able to identify children and parents or caretakers who are struggling and need support.”

Gov. Jay Inslee takes a photo with youth and family advocates and state leaders following a press conference about the the Department of Children, Youth, and Families, which officially launched as a new agency on July 1. (Office of the Governor photo)

DCYF staff includes foster care workers, social workers, licensors, researchers, and policy experts in the fields of early learning and child welfare. The cabinet-level agency combines the Department of Early Learning and the Children’s Administration, which was formerly part of the Department of Social and Health Services. In July 2019, DSHS’s Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration will also join the new department.

Proponents of the transformation modeled it on successes seen in other states.

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 instituted policy improvements while they spotlight the importance of these services to reach more families in need.

The process for considering a unified agency devoted to children and family services started when the governor issued an executive order creating the Blue Ribbon Commission on Children and Families. The commission’s work resulted in a bipartisan and unanimous recommendation to establish DCYF. Inslee signed House Bill 1661 on July 6 of last year, starting the transition process that created the new agency.

While testifying in support of HB 1661 last year, Annie Blackledge, executive director of The Mockingbird Society and someone who grew up in foster care, said that the old way of structuring child welfare services isn’t sustainable and allows some of our most vulnerable to fall through the cracks.

“The siloed approach, while well intentioned, leaves gaps that result in an undue burden on families, youth and communities,” she said. “Our social workers are overburdened, our foster parents are burning out, and our kids are struggling in care. We can’t continue to tinker around the edges. We need a new approach.”

Sabian Hart, a youth who experienced Washington’s foster system and also represents The Mockingbird Society, said today that the new department is off to a strong start , especially because it has an Office of Youth Engagement.

“Having people who have been in the system, especially young people, is an irreplaceable puzzle piece,” Hart said. “We as a state can be an example for how to do foster care worldwide.”

The two co-chairs of the blue ribbon commission, retired judge Anne Levinson and state Rep. Ruth Kagi, also spoke at the celebration.

“It’s been a Herculean effort, and there’s such a feeling of success today that we really have accomplished the impossible,” said Kagi, who sponsored HB 1661 and chairs the Early Learning and Human Services Committee in the House. “We’re off to a great start. … It bodes for a much better future for children and families in Washington.”

Levinson said, “We launched this work knowing that most child welfare systems were created decades ago. … We owed it to (our children) to change from a crisis-driven approach to a supportive, outcome-based, prevention and early-intervention approach focusing on risk factors most likely to hinder development and successful transition to adulthood.”

With DCYF, Washington also has an opportunity to create a cohesive support system for kids and families. DCYF will work to identify where families encounter gaps in services or have difficulty accessing services. By closing those gaps, DCYF can help reduce family trauma and promote family resilience and well-being.

Ross Hunter, secretary of the Department of Children, Youth, and Families, answers a question Monday during a press conference about the new department in Olympia. (Office of the Governor photo)

“We have been tasked with designing an agency that helps all children and families thrive,” DCYF Secretary Ross Hunter said. “I want to build a system that is more equitable and that is centered in the communities we serve.”

Through its Office of Innovation, Alignment, and Accountability, the new agency is working with experts around the state to develop goals and examine the ways in which race, ethnicity and poverty affect a child’s opportunity for success.

Hunter, a former DEL director, has been serving as DCYF secretary since Aug. 1, leading a yearlong transition effort that has involved hundreds of staff across DEL and DSHS.

“Staff have worked above and beyond their traditional workloads participating on mission teams and workgroups to ensure a seamless merger so that children and families will continue receiving services without interruption,” Hunter said. “Because of their hard work, we’re well-positioned to take on the challenge of creating an effective, robust system that works for Washington’s families.”

Watch a video of the press conference on the governor’s Twitter page.