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Originally published January 26, 2013 at 12:02 AM | Page modified January 26, 2013 at 8:12 AM

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Editorial: Steep learning curve for DSHS chief Kevin Quigley

The new head of the Department of Social and Health Services must not let the state backslide on reforms in the child-welfare system.

Seattle Times Editorial

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GOV. Jay Insee’s out-of-the-box pick to run the state Department of Social and Health Services pledges to make the safety of abused and neglected children job No. 1.

Other DSHS secretaries have said what Kevin Quigley has said as well, but presided over sometimes fatal and heart-rending results.

Luckily, Quigley inherits a child-welfare system in better shape than his predecessors did, thanks to improvements mandated by a nine-year-old binding agreement called the Braam settlement.

Job No. 1 should be to add to those gains, even as the Braam settlement, which required an independent oversight board, sunsets later this year.

That settlement arrived in 2004 for good reason: Child advocates showed that foster children pinballed from foster home to foster home, suffering badly because of poor management. The settlement’s namesake, Jessica Braam, had bounced among 34 foster homes by the time she was 12.

Despite gains, the agency still hasn’t fully lived up to the landmark settlement.

Caseloads for child-welfare workers recently rose. Foster children are too often separated from their siblings. And foster caregivers aren’t getting critical, timely information about the children in their care. These reforms can be made within existing resources.

There are other causes for concern. In its annual report released last week, the state Office of the Family and Children’s Ombudsman reported that more than a quarter of Child Protective Services cases remain open after three months, violating state law and potentially endangering fragile children.

Most alarming, the number of children with an open or recent DSHS case who were killed by abuse or neglect nearly tripled from 2009 to 2011, from eight to 23.

This demands attention, pronto, and an explanation. If it is not fixed, the Legislature should consider giving the ombudsman, an independent and neutral investigator housed within the governor’s office, the power to subpoena DSHS records and testimony.

Quigley’s challenge will be to use his private-sector experience — most recently running an Everett shipyard — to squeeze better results out of the Children’s Administration’s $533 million annual budget.

He has no social-services management experience; his on-the-job learning curve is steep. As custodian of the state’s neediest cases, he must also make it quick.

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