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Originally published Saturday, June 1, 2013 at 4:05 PM

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Editorial: A test of DSHS commitment to children in foster care

Independent monitoring of Washington’s foster-care system is ending, but that’s no reason to slow reforms begun by the Braam settlement.

Seattle Times Editorial

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WASHINGTON’S child-welfare system is at a crossroads, creating a test of transparency and execution for Gov. Jay Inslee’s administration.

Independent monitoring of the foster-care system, which the state agreed to in settling a class-action lawsuit by foster children, is ending. The so-called Braam settlement, signed in 2004, was a powerful tonic to an ailing system.

Wards of the state are no longer routinely sleeping in state offices, or forced to move among dozens of foster homes, or having their health needs ignored. And the Department of Social and Health Services stopped being defensive and even hostile to well-meaning community advocates who filed the Braam lawsuit.

The monitoring panel ends next month, and the settlement agreement expires in December. Can the state DSHS maintain a reform agenda without an external watchdog?

That’s relevant because DSHS is launching the most ambitious reforms in memory to the Child Protective Services system — the front door to foster care. Over the next two years, the agency plans to add a second option for investigating CPS complaints, one that seeks to preserve families rather than split them up.

That approach, called Family Assessment Response, is tailored to help, rather than split up, families accused of neglect. In other states, including Ohio, the approach didn’t raise costs, maintained child safety and diverted thousands of kids from foster homes. If all goes as planned, it will launch later this year.

To pay for more help, DSHS smartly leveraged a change in federal rules that opens more federal dollars for preventive services. Before the change, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Seattle, federal dollars could only pay for foster care, not the services intended to avoid foster care.

These are complex shifts in an already complex system, and will require public trust to succeed.

To do so, DSHS should preserve the transparency and goals of the Braam settlement, even after it expires.

Post performance data. Keep kids out of foster care if possible. If it is not possible, keep them from pinballing among foster homes. Monitor their physical and mental well-being. And clearly explain the plan to avoid tragedies with the new initiatives.

DSHS Secretary Kevin Quigley is a data nerd, and has made smart out-of-the-box hires, including Jennifer Strus to the Children’s Administration. That’s good.

Better still, DSHS should ensure a system so good that a Braam settlement, Part II, won’t be needed.

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