Secretary Hunter Welcomes Legislators to 2023 Session

January 10, 2023
State Capitol Building

DCYF Secretary Ross Hunter provided the following update and welcome to the legislature on Monday, Jan. 9, the start of the 2023 Legislative Session.

Welcome to the 2023 legislative session.

Thank you for your support this past year. That support has been a crucial factor in creating progress for children, youth, and families in the state, and it will again be crucial this session.

The pandemic was hard. It sucked focus away from long-term projects and toward immediate, demanding issues. We adjusted, adjusted again, and are mostly back to normal now, with a very stressed population, particularly among our adolescents. Thank you for keeping your eye on the horizon during this period and making substantial changes that improve the long-term prospects for many of the families we serve.

Even so, during this time, we continued to reduce the number of children in out-of-home care and to increase the percentage of placement with relatives when we do have to remove a child. Overall, we have fewer children in out-of-home care than at any time in the last 40 years, and our balancing safety indicator has stayed at approximately the same level. At 54% relative placement, we are one of the leaders in the nation. We have more work to do on both.

Thank you for taking practical steps to unwind some of the historical elements that contribute to structural racism. The reality is that children, youth, and families of color are disproportionately involved in our systems. Last year you eliminated the “Parent Pay Statute,” (HB 2050) that charged those families the cost of their child’s incarceration, removing a barrier to young people’s successful transition out of the juvenile system. You supported ending the practice of referring parents to child support collection after a child is placed in foster care, making us one of the first states in the country to end this harmful and fiscally nonsensical practice.

Together we took steps toward fulfilling our promise to tribal governments in how we defend and apply the Indian Child Welfare Act, working with tribes on a plan to implement Supreme Court decisions and redress centuries of malpractice from federal and state actions.

In 2023, we are focusing on prevention and providing supports where an adequate safety plan can keep a family together. You will see requests to reduce entries to the system and significantly reduce long-term trauma for children.

  • The Prevention request will reduce foster care placements by investing in substance use disorder treatment to reduce child maltreatment and entry into foster care. Our request will also entail expanding the home visiting program.
  • The Combined In-Home Services request will create capacity in the service delivery system so that we can ensure children are as safe as possible, that services are culturally sensitive and are more available than they are today.

If we have to remove a child, we want a relative to have the same resources as any other foster parent to provide adequate care, support placement stability, and reduce trauma for the child. You will see requests to support reunification, kin placement, and reduce the length of stay for children through a robust continuum of resources for caregivers.

  • The Placement Supports for Caregivers request will implement a new rate structure and supports for caregivers. Placement supports will be provided to caregivers regardless of licensure status.
  • The Housing Access and Supports request will increase access to housing for families where a child is at risk of removal in part by housing instability.
  • The Guardianship Assistance Program will provide financial support to caregivers who become guardians rather than adoptive parents.

Our work is built on robust community connections, including the Culturally Relevant Language Access Program, which would build infrastructure to improve how we support language access needs of all providers and clients. We also ask for continued expansion of the Kinship Caregiver Engagement Unit, a team that improves outcomes for children and keeps them in their community.

It is critical that those who work on behalf of Washington families are paid a living wage. Today, our providers cannot hire and retain adequate staff for our 24/7 facilities. They cannot staff group homes, provide substance abuse treatment, or retain home visitors or child care workers. Our main challenge in Juvenile Rehabilitation is staffing. We have vacancies at facilities that are difficult to fill at the wages we pay—sometimes less than what people earn in fast food— despite the safety and security concerns inherent in this line of work. We have an over-30% vacancy rate in IT positions, stymieing our ability to deliver many of the innovations you want from us. Governor Inslee’s budget this year includes proposed salary adjustments critical to retaining and recruiting staff, as well as retention incentives that will allow us to maintain high-quality, experienced staff. We heartily support these proposed investments.

We include requests for items that we are required by law to implement. Key among them are reforms to eliminate the use of hotel stays and one-night placements as required by the D.S. lawsuit settlement agreement. The request will help us come into compliance and to serve young people and their families with appropriate attention to their needs.

We are grateful that you allocated significant funds to child care and early learning providers during the height of the COVID crisis. Now that we are through the acute phase of the pandemic we need to shift our focus to providing stable, long-term funding that will secure the foundation of the child care system and grow access to more Washington families. We support continuing to expand access to high-quality early learning by investing in rate increases for ECEAP and child care providers and increasing the number of ECEAP slots. Without rate increases, additional slots will be difficult to implement.

IT systems for DCYF and for the coalition of human services agencies take a long time to complete, and changes in the external IT labor market have made it difficult to hire and retain staff. In consultation with the OCIO we have chosen slower, lower-risk strategies for some projects and will need your continued support. These include continued funding for critical IT solutions, the first of which is a new child welfare case management system, the Comprehensive Child Welfare Information System (CCWIS). The Social Service Payment System (SSPS) is a mission-critical, complex legacy system that runs on a Unisys mainframe and has reached its “end of life.” The system must be streamlined and modernized to continue to support payment processing and system development technology in the future.

Meeting these requests provides an opportunity to make tangible our agency’s commitment to better serve Washington’s children, youth, and families. Together, we will also advance racial equity and reduce racial disparity in our services and outcomes through improvement in our public service.

Let’s work together to bring these common-sense actions to fruition. Nothing on my agenda or yours is more important than working for Washington’s kids and families.

Thank you,

Ross Hunter, DCYF Secretary