Thursday’s state Supreme Court ruling affirmed Washington remains responsible for the safety and welfare of children after it places them in foster care.
The ruling, in a narrow 5-4 decision, means — at least in the short run — the state could eventually be on the hook for a multimillion-dollar settlement with five children who sued the state Department of Social and Health Services for failing to investigate and stop abuse committed against them by their foster parents. This ruling sends the lawsuit back to trial court.
DSHS “owes a duty of reasonable care to protect foster children from abuse at the hands of their foster parents,” according to the opinion, which is a broadening protections for more than 10,000 kids in state government custody.
And the broadening of protections — in the long run — should result in fewer foster kids suffering abuse.
Lincoln Beauregard, an attorney who represented the five children, was on the mark when he said he hopes the high court ruling will create a greater incentive for the department to conduct safety checks on kids in the foster-care system.
But putting better protections is going to take time — and a lot of money.
The Legislature is going to have to get serious about coming up with cash to hire more social workers and then providing more training to help workers protect children.
Investing money in DSHS up front could save children from abuse, and should reduce the amount the state is shelling out on settlements.
Last last month, DSHS officials agreed to pay $19.3 million to settle a 2017 lawsuit brought on behalf of a girl who was left blind, brain-damaged and quadriplegic after being abused by the foster father the state placed her with in Texas. It is the largest settlement in a case involving one person in Washington state’s history.
However, keep in mind the court ruling alone isn’t going to stop make DSHS’ problems go away. Placing children with the right foster families is extremely difficult under the best of circumstances, and is much tougher given the emotional and physical trauma some of these children have already endured. Screening foster families is not a perfect science.
Still, this ruling will force the state to step up its efforts, and that should result in improvement.