To paraphrase Shakespeare, something is rotten in the remote northeast corner of Washington State. It’s the child welfare system.
A new Ombudsman report finds a “serious crisis of confidence” that’s putting children and families at risk.
The report seems to confirm what community leaders have been saying for months. Correspondent Austin Jenkins recently visited Colville, WA and filed this story.
It’s a spring evening in Colville. Leigh Roubideaux’s daughters - ages 7 and 4 – are playing on their swing set in their front yard.
|Leigh Roubideaux’s daughters were taken by CPS in 2008|
It was a very different picture last August. That’s when Roubideaux’s kids strayed into the busy street in front of their house.
Someone called the police and soon Child Protective Services was knocking at the door. Roubideaux - who has developmental disabilities – remembers that day well.
Leigh Roubideaux: “I was petrified. I was in tears.”
CPS took the kids away. It took three weeks and the support of friends and neighbors – like local businesswoman Lisa Shinn - for Roubideaux to get her daughters back. Shinn thinks CPS discriminated against Roubideaux because of her disability and the fact she’s Native American.
Lisa Shinn: “We would all have our children taken away if someone saw them playing in the street everyone would have their children taken by CPS if that is the criteria.”
This is just one example of a litany of complaints against Children and Family Services in Northeast Washington.
Stevens County Prosecutor Tim Rasmussen sits in an easy chair in his living room with two accordion files at his feet. In those files are the stories of people who feel they’ve been wronged by state child welfare officials.
Tim Rasmussen: “There’s a lot of human tragedy here. There’s a lot of tragic, tragic situations.”
For the past many months — at the request of a state lawmaker — Rasmussen has collected accounts of what he calls a “pattern of misconduct” by the Colville, Washington office of Children and Family Services.
In one of the more high profile cases, five children were removed from the home of a well-known foster family. A judge later called it a “slap in the face” and an “overreaction” that resulted in “tremendous upheaval” for the children.
Some of them were siblings who were separated from each other. Rasmussen’s theory is that caseworkers overreacted because of something horrible that happened in Colville back in 2005.
A 7-year-old boy named Tyler DeLeon was starved to death by his foster mother.
Tim Rasmussen: “What’s happening now is just a different chapter in the book if you would. Tyler DeLeon is one chapter and they missed the mark in one direction and in some of the current cases they appear to have missed the mark in another direction.”
Prosecutor Rasmussen recently wrote a letter to Governor Chris Gregoire that says he believes there’s a “culture of deceit and deception” within the Colville child welfare office.
He’s even considering criminal charges against a CPS worker for violating a court order.
Rasmussen isn’t the only one critical of Children and Family Services. Patty Markel runs the CASA program in Stevens County. These are the Court Appointed Special Advocates who represent the children in child dependency cases. She alleges that CPS caseworkers act in a “willy-nilly” fashion that’s personality driven and motivated by a fear of lawsuits.
Patty Markel: “What I see now is more liability-driven decision making. And that’s concerning because that’s not necessarily – this whole system is supposed to be about the best interests of children”
You hear a similar theme from Barry Bacon - a family physician in Colville. He says CPS workers often ignore the advice of local doctors like him. Instead, from what he’s seen, they take kids to Spokane – 70 miles away – to see the doctor.
Dr. Barry Bacon: “They would rather continue with their opinion and destroy a child rather than admit that they’ve made a mistake. It’s unbelievable. I mean it’s like the Wild West. They are a law unto themselves which is one of the biggest issues we have with them.”
The Department of Social and Health Services has reviewed the cases flagged by Prosecutor Rasmussen and in a recent report finds no wrongdoing by caseworkers. But in a separate investigation by state Ombudsman Mary Meinig, a disturbing portrait of the Colville office emerges.
Over the past two years, the Ombudsman’s office has received 62 complaints regarding child welfare practices in the Northeast corner of Washington. So far in 16 of those cases, the Ombudsman found – in her words – “violations of law, policy, procedure; clearly unreasonable actions; or simply poor social work practice.”
Beyond that Meinig says her investigation revealed a “culture of pervasive distrust” between CPS workers and other professionals in the community. But rather than pinning all the blame on CPS, Meinig says everyone involved needs to do a better job of working together.
Mary Meinig: “Our report says the kids are at-risk and families are at-risk because of the lack of trust, cooperation, collaboration and communication that’s going on within the community.”
The situation is so serious, Meinig believes, that the lives of vulnerable children are on the line.
Mary Meinig: “Well if it doesn’t improve I would say it would be a matter of time before we have an even more serious incidents – possible child fatality or near fatality.”
Like others, Meinig believes past tragedies – like the starvation death of Tyler DeLeon – are influencing the decisions made by CPS workers and have led to a climate of distrust.
In haunting language, she writes the “ghosts of children past…sit in the collective conscience as reminders of where the system failed.” But Meinig’s report is not devoid of hope. She recommends several steps to start rebuilding trust.
This includes bringing in an outside professional mediator and creating a diverse community advisory board. How does Children and Family Services respond to all this?
Marty Butkovich, DSHS Regional Administrator: “Obviously relationships need to be improved.”
Marty Butkovich is the Administrator who oversees the Colville CPS office. He acknowledges there’s been a breakdown in communication. But he calls his staff “exceptional.” And he says he’s seen nothing to suggest his employees need to be disciplined or fired.
Marty Butkovich: “We’re not the bad guy. This is very difficult work, very emotional work and some very difficult decisions are being made as it relates to kids and people have strong feelings about some of those decisions and not always in agreement.”
As for whether a fear of lawsuits is driving decisions to take children away, Butkovich admits that does weigh on caseworkers’ minds.
Marty Butkovich: “Liability is something that is very obvious and tort and being sued and deaths – all the real bad things that are out there – can be in a social workers mind and if they’re stressed and tired and so ya it can be there.”
Department of Social and Health Services officials say they believe relations in Northeast Washington have improved over the past year – but there’s still work to be done. The agency plans to put a corrective action plan into place. The problems in Colville have even reached Governor Chris Gregoire. She said in response to the Ombudsman report she wants the agency to – quote - “refocus on what’s important” - the children they’re charged with protecting.