Restructuring services to better serve children and families

Gov. Jay Inslee on Thursday outlined plans to restructure how state government serves at-risk families and children and create a new Department of Children, Youth and Families. The plans follow the recommendations of the bipartisan blue ribbon commission convened by the governor earlier this year.

Gov. Jay Inslee with early learning students at El Centro de la Raza in Seattle, Wash., Dec. 15, 2106. (Official Governor’s Office Photo)

The new agency, after a transition period, would oversee several services now offered through the state Department of Social and Health Services and the Department of Early learning. These include Child Protective Services, the Family Assessment Response program, child welfare case management, in-home support services, adoption support, out-of-home licensing functions and extended foster care for youth up to age 21.

DCYF will also administer programs offered by the Juvenile Rehabilitation office and the Office of Juvenile Justice in DSHS, starting in July 2019. These include juvenile rehabilitation institutions, community facilities and parole.

The governor detailed his plans during a visit to El Centro de la Raza in Seattle, which houses a preschool program serving children from low-income families. The program receives funding from the state’s Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program

Inslee’s visit to El Centro de la Raza caps off three days of rollouts of his budget. Tuesday, he unveiled his plan to fully fund K-12 education, proposing $3.9 billion in new funding for K-12 schools. Wednesday, he released his full budget proposal, which includes a major overhaul of the state’s mental health system. His budget also invests $27.8 million for considerable expansion of early learning, including 2,700 more preschool slots for children from low-income families. This follows historic early learning investments the governor championed and signed in 2015.

The governor is proposing the new agency because of concerns the state lacks a clear focus on the welfare of children and youth.

“We need greater accountability. We need greater visibility of children’s issues. We need fewer barriers to improving our practice. And we need a direct line to the governor on how we’re going to make children safer, healthier, more secure and connected to adults who care about them,” Inslee said.

The governor asked the blue ribbon commission to recommend the best ways to restructure services and create a state agency whose sole charge is to improve programs and outcomes for Washington’s children, youth and families.

State Rep. Ruth Kagi (D-Seattle), chair of the House Early Learning & Human Services Committee and co-chair of the blue ribbon commission, has been critical of earlier proposals to create a new agency but now fully supports the idea of an agency dedicated solely to children, youth and families.

Gov. Jay Inslee with Ross Hunter, director of the Department of Early Learning, and Estella Ortega executive director of El Centro de la Raza and staff at the governor’s press conference in Seattle, Wash., Dec. 15, 2016. (Official Governor’s Office Photo)

“The way government is organized signals its priorities. This proposal restructures agencies serving high-risk children and families into one department that reports directly to the governor, is accountable for improving outcomes for children and families and can speak to their needs in the Legislature.”

Anne Levinson, a retired judge who served as the other blue ribbon commission co-chair, also supports the new agency.

“We know so much more about brain science and the risk factors that negatively impact healthy development. If we want more children and youth to thrive, we owe it to them to change systems and approaches that were created decades ago. And we owe it to the public to strengthen the collective impact of all services provided by the state to children, youth and families.”

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 long-term care, the state psychiatric facilities, nutrition services and vocational rehabilitation, to name a few.

The governor said that putting all state children’s services in one agency will concentrate attention and resources on improving outcomes, promoting more accountability and heightening the prominence of children’s issues.

“It’s also a shift from reaction to prevention. We’ve all heard the saying, ‘An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.’ Early intervention and support will reduce the chances of harm or further harm to children and increase the chances they can succeed in school and in life,” Inslee said.

Other states have had success with the approach the governor is proposing. 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. 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.

To help ensure a smooth transition, a new Office of Innovation and Alignment will lead efforts to shape the new agency, starting July 1, 2017.

The governor’s budget includes funding to begin the transition planning for the new agency. While this funding is a relatively small part of the total budget, it is critical to getting the structure for DCYF in place. In 2018, the Children’s Administration programs will be transitioned to the new agency, followed by juvenile justice programs the following year.

DCYF will build on the state’s very successful approach to early learning. A decade ago, Washington created the Department of Early Learning to address the opportunity gap and increase kindergarten readiness by providing programs based on brain science. The new agency supports the governor’s commitment to closing that gap and ensuring every child has the opportunity to succeed.