New Department of Children, Youth and Families brings fresh approach, Walsh says

Sen. Maureen Walsh, R-Walla Walla.

OLYMPIA – State Sen. Maureen Walsh, R-Walla Walla, said Saturday Washington’s new Department of Children, Youth and Families will bring a fresh approach to the problems of the state’s at-risk families – and offer a greater chance of success.

The new department, authorized early Saturday morning during the final hours of the 2017 legislative session, will combine the state Department of Early Learning with programs now housed in the Department of Social and Health Services and other agencies – Children’s Administration, juvenile-justice programs, and ombuds services.

Walsh served last year on the governor’s blue-ribbon Commission on Children and Families, which crafted the proposal. Walsh said the new department will focus on preventing problems before they occur.

“Some think it odd that so many Republicans would be interested in creating a new state-government agency,” Walsh said. “But the fact is, despite years of effort by the state Children’s Administration to help families that are experiencing problems, the return on investment has been poor. When existing programs just aren’t working, especially where child welfare is concerned, I think people of all perspectives can agree the state needs to dramatically change its approach.

“Instead of reacting after problems occur, when families are already ‘broken,’ the new department will stress prevention strategies to give families the tools to keep problems from occurring in the first place.

“For roughly the same amount we now spend on programs for children and families, we are creating an agency that will identify those at greatest risk and help empower them to avert and overcome their difficulties. We may even be able to break the cycle of abuse responsible for the dysfunction of so many families, and the problems that repeat one generation to the next.

“I was skeptical last year when I was appointed to serve on the governor’s commission. I questioned whether this new department would truly operate any differently than current DSHS programs. Yet I’ve always known we can do better for families across the state, and I came away thoroughly convinced this collaborative approach is the solution. Every year we spend millions of dollars on programs aimed at children and youth. Yet there is little coordination, and our failures are underscored whenever a lawsuit charges the state intervened too late, or not at all. It makes more sense for our programs to operate as a team.

“Studies demonstrate that a family-centered approach – with multiple home visits, attention and advice from social workers who genuinely care about their clients – can help build the strong families that will reduce problems over the long term.”

Walsh noted that the state has the ability to identify those who need the greatest assistance. The commission’s report last year observed:

  • Neglected or abused children are 4.2 times more likely to become a substance abuser as an adult, and are 3.4 times more likely to suffer from mental health problems.
  • One in three children who experience multiple placements in foster care will become homeless, a rate 50 percent higher than the typical foster child.
  • Homeless students are much less likely to graduate from high school — 52 percent versus a statewide average of 78 percent.
  • Of all youth referred to the juvenile justice system in 2010, 44 percent had a history of involvement with the child-welfare system, far higher than the general population.


Several states already have adopted the coordinated approach envisioned in Washington state, among them Indiana, New Jersey, Tennessee, Georgia and Wisconsin, as well as New York City.

Walsh said the reorganization will bring an important change to the culture of state programs that deal with at-risk children, youth and families. “We will be emphasizing prevention rather than reaction,” she said. “We have an unrealistic expectation that the state can step in after problems occur and make things right. We are more likely to achieve a good outcome if we act early to provide families with the assistance they need. We may even see a financial return as fewer families re-enter the system. Managing our child-welfare programs in a more effective way is something on which I think everyone in Washington can agree.”