The Race Is On to Extend the Braam Settlement, a Critical Part of the Child Welfare Oversight System That's Set to Expire in Five Weeks

Only five weeks remain before the Braam Settlement expires.
October 31. That's the day the Braam Settlement, a critical part of Washington's child-welfare oversight system, is set to permanently expire.

The settlement, which expired in July and was temporarily extended through the end of October, has not yet been renewed. The failure to negotiate a multiyear extension could set Washington's child welfare system back to the days when, as a result of an extreme lack of foster parents, children were left to sleep in social workers' offices and cheap motels on Aurora Avenue.

In 2004, after six years of litigation, the state reached a settlement with legal advocates who sued on behalf of Jessica Braam, a woman who went through 34 foster homes while under state care.

What her lawyers argued was simple, though the state fought it tooth and nail: Children have a constitutional right to receive "reasonable" care. Gov. Christine Gregoire, then acting as attorney general, supervised the state's fight to squash the Braam lawsuit.

After the settlement, a new panel of national experts, the Braam Oversight Panel, recommended benchmarks to improve care.

Those benchmarks created an aura of accountability and concrete expectations for what kind of care kids under state supervision deserve, says Casey Trupin, a lawyer with Columbia Legal Services who took part in the original Braam lawsuit and is trying to negotiate an extension.

The settlement is important because if legal advocates like Trupin feel the Department of Social and Health Services isn't doing enough to meet the benchmarks, they can ask the courts to compel it to do more.

Seven years later, significant progress has been made, Trupin says. For example, the percentage of children receiving monthly visits from case workers has risen dramatically, as has the percentage of kids who receive a CHET screening (child health and education screening) within 30 days of intake.

Much work remains, however. According to Trupin, DSHS is still falling short of most benchmarks and needs more time to affect meaningful, lasting change. Other states that have reached similar legal agreements, he says, have had up to 20 years to implement comparable recommendations.

In 2010, DSHS only met six of 29 benchmarks set by the oversight panel, according to a March report. Information wasn't immediately available for four of the benchmarks.

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