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New department would save foster youth -- and money

If the health-care system’s first line of intervention was the emergency room, followed by intensive, remedial treatment, what kinds of outcomes would we get? Health care is most cost-effective and humane when it focuses on prevention and facilitates high quality of life.

Child protective service investigations and foster care placements are proxy for the hospital emergency room. Juvenile justice has a small tool kit beyond incarceration. What kinds of outcomes can we expect for our most under-resourced and vulnerable children and families if all we provide consistently is the emergency room? Today, those outcomes are unacceptable.

There are almost 9,000 children in foster care throughout Washington state — 383 of them in Yakima County alone — and many are separated from their parents without any single adult ever stepping up to say: “You are my top priority.” These same children’s young adult experiences manifest as disheartening statistics reflecting increased unemployment, homelessness, early parenting and incarceration. These youth have a steep and inadequately supported climb to self-reliance.

The proposal in Washington state for a new Department of Children, Youth and Families (House Bill 1661) combines the current Department of Early Learning (DEL), Children’s Administration and Juvenile Rehabilitation. This innovation shifts our state’s strategy from crisis intervention to brain-science based prevention, early intervention, and child and family well-being. It’s answering community demands for accountable, child and family-centered practice that supports child and community well-being and safety at the same time. While compliant with federal regulations, it shifts Washington into the driver’s seat, defining and designing for these outcomes versus simple obedience to federal law.

DEL has demonstrated the effective establishment of business principles to achieve state goals in early learning and kindergarten readiness. Juvenile Rehabilitation has been innovating successfully to reduce the number of incarcerations and time imprisoned. With this experience as the foundation, government can reduce family crises and deliver an early intervention and prevention portfolio. The legislation includes an important new strategy, the Office of Innovation and Alignment. Like our best-in-class businesses, the new department will be resourced to improve current practice, develop a future-oriented learning agenda, and align the diverse services government provides.

In the last few years, Children’s Administration has pioneered Family Assessment Response, a treatment alternative to the forensic investigations Child Protective Services traditionally provides when a child is reported at risk of abuse or neglect. Early results of this culture-shifting approach are promising. Under the management of a new Department of Children Youth and Families, they will be more impactful. Families with young children will benefit from the continuum of DEL services encompassing early intervention focusing on attachment through formal pre-school. Every parent wants their child to grow up to be successful. This agency alignment makes that more likely.

With earlier intervention, fewer youth will enter the foster care system and thanks to the new department, those who do will be better served. The challenges for youth in foster care are immense with less than half graduating from high school. Without a diploma, they fall behind their peers on almost every academic measure and experience disproportionately high rates of poverty, homelessness, incarceration, early parenting and substance abuse when they leave care. In contrast, every youth who graduates from high school saves taxpayers $1 million over their lifetime.

The bill to create the department passed the House of Representatives in Washington and won a strong bipartisan vote in the state’s Senate Committee on Human Services, Mental Health and Housing. In order to move forward, state senators must vote in support of HB 1661.

As the legislature negotiates a final state budget for the upcoming biennium, the new department should be included.

* Janis Avery is CEO of Treehouse, a nonprofit that works with 7,000 youth in foster care throughout Washington state to give them a childhood and a future. For more information, visit

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