On January 29, 2021, three young people impacted by the Washington State child welfare system filed a class action lawsuit, alongside Disability Rights Washington and Children’s Rights. The lawsuit claimed that the Washington State Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF) failed to provide foster children who had behavioral health and developmental disabilities with the services they needed to support family reunification or other permanent placements.
Close to two years later, in September 2022, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington approved a class action settlement agreement. The agreement required that DCYF hear feedback and recommendations from youth and other stakeholders and develop and implement a plan for systemic changes that are trauma-informed, culturally responsive, and 2SLGBTQIA+ affirming.
This was the first time such an agreement in child welfare included a Stakeholder Facilitator to engage impacted populations. This role was inspired by Think of Us’ previous work in Washington state. Think of Us was contracted to obtain feedback from youth with lived experience, with a designated 60-day completion period.
We stepped up to the challenge, engaging 69 young people: 21 through in-person and virtual listening sessions, and 48 respondents through a statewide survey. The participants came from a wide range of locations and backgrounds to ensure a diverse representation of experiences, including youth from marginalized communities, those with cognitive and physical disabilities, neurodiverse youth, and 2SLBGTQIA+ youth.
This settlement process sets an exciting new precedent, including those determined to have been adversely impacted by the child welfare system in designing the solution. This new model helps to shift power toward youth and families affected by child welfare, by giving them an official voice in the settlement process.
Already, this model has been replicated in a similar settlement process in Oregon, creating a powerful new lever to ensure that child welfare class action settlements create better outcomes for the youth and families impacted.
According to the Washington settlement agreement, the focus of the engagement process should be on system improvements for kinship engagement, family group planning, and referrals and traditions. In addition, we asked young people to add topics for discussion about issues that were important to them.
Shortly after the engagement, DCYF posted the report Think of Us prepared on its website along with their proposed implementation plan. It also had a recommendations matrix where DCYF organized all the recommendations by the ones deemed within the scope of the settlement and the ones they felt were out of scope. In July, DCYF hosted a webinar to share the recommendations from youth with administrators and providers across the state.
In order to drive adoption of youth recommendations and long-term ownership of the process of change management, we then had two meetings with leadership at DCYF. We met with the DCYF executive leadership team on August 9. We focused specifically on the recommendations determined to be beyond the scope of the settlement. We discussed which of these items already had momentum, which recommendations they had any hesitations or concerns around, and which are not currently addressed but could potentially be prioritized.
We then met with the DCYF Field Operations leadership staff on December 7 to engage in a similar discussion, but through the lens of agency staff who are closer to the work with young people in the field. We appreciate DCYF leadership’s openness and willingness to engage in these conversations to better understand, consider, and think through the implications of what their state’s young people bravely shared.
Findings and Recommendations
After conducting the feedback sessions, we compiled the recommendations and agreed on six broad themes to categorize our findings. Due to the number of suggestions we have included only a few select findings and recommendations for each theme.
1. How DCYF Brings Youth into the System
- Young people spoke of not receiving prevention services and an overall lack of a family preservation approach. This led to family separation when different supports and services might have prevented removal. Even when CPS reports were made, this did not trigger the provision of prevention services.
Recommendations: Provide parents with greater access to comprehensive prevention programming, such as housing, mental health, and financial support, and initiate prevention services for families who have been reported to CPS.
- Young people’s experiences with removals varied widely. On one hand, young people who feared for their safety raised concerns about their situation not being taken seriously enough for their removal to occur. On the other hand, youth who did not feel unsafe in their homes experienced unnecessary and abrupt removals.
Recommendations: Listen to young people’s assessment of their own safety when making decisions about removals. Work to remove young people from environments where they report feeling unsafe, and in non-life-threatening situations delay removal until a placement is identified to reduce disruptions.
2. How DCYF Places Youth
- Young people felt that their individualized preferences and needs for placement were not listened to or prioritized by DCYF. The lack of consideration for their input led to more moves and placement instability, and risked causing further harm.
Recommendations: Ask young people about their placement needs and consider their histories and identities when identifying potential placements. Strive to place young people in their preferred placement, and explain why if their preference is not possible. Make every effort possible to reduce the number of transfers and increase placement stability.
- Young people who identified kin they wanted to live with voiced frustration that DCYF did not provide the information or support necessary for the kin to qualify as a placement option.
Recommendations: Strive to place young people with a family member or trusted adult(s) first and provide the necessary information and support for preferred placements to become licensed.
3. How DCYF Engages Youth’s Families and Loved Ones
- Upon removal and throughout their time in care, young people experienced disconnection from siblings, loved ones, and communities. Some young people noted they did not have access to tools that would enable them to maintain connections with loved ones.
Recommendations: Aim to place siblings together and provide young people with technology and opportunities to maintain continued communication with family and loved ones.
- Youth placed with kin voiced the lack of support provided by DCYF. They expressed how caseworkers pushed for kin placements because it was a faster process, but did not consider the services or benefits kin should receive to better care for young people.
Recommendations: Provide kin caregivers with the resources and support they need such as financial, basic needs, healthcare, and information classes.
4. How DCYF Listens to and Represents Youth
- Some young people believe that the system is based on adultism, the belief that adults are entitled to have control over and make decisions for young people without their agreement. As a result, young people found themselves in situations where they were not believed, including reports of abusive or harmful experiences in placements.
Recommendations: Provide required training on anti-adultism, sharing power, and decision-making with young people to judges, caseworkers, and DCYF staff. Believe young people when they come forward with concerns and reports of harm they are experiencing while in foster/kinship care.
- Young people expressed a desire for more transparency in family planning and group meetings. Not knowing what to expect could be anxiety inducing, resulting in young people not feeling comfortable or prepared to attend. Those who attended spoke to both their lack of say in the meetings and understanding of decision-making.
Recommendations: Invite young people to the meetings, prioritize their attendance, and explain what each meeting is about. Provide the preparation and support they need and consider the ideas they share during the meetings.
5. How DCYF Treats Youth of Different Identities and Experiences
- Young people reported facing sanism and neuro-discrimination because of their diagnoses. Young people also lacked vital mental health education that could have been helpful in understanding themselves and what they needed to thrive.
Recommendations: Train placement providers and DCYF staff on mental health and provide mental health education to young people so that they can ask for the help they need.
- Young people felt DCYF disregarded their racial and cultural identities in placement decisions, which led to a sense of disconnection from their heritage. Additionally, 2SLGBTQIA+ youth highlighted cases of discrimination, abuse, and a lack of consideration for their sexual orientation or gender identity in their placements or by DCYF staff.
Recommendations: Train DCYF staff on racial equity and cultural competency, ensuring placements honor young individuals’ cultural, racial, and religious identities. Prioritize the safety and affirmation of 2SLGBTQIA+ youth by mandating ongoing training for placement providers and DCYF staff. Place 2SLGBTQIA+ youth in supportive environments that protect and affirm their identities.
6. How DCYF Meets Youth’s Needs
- Young people expressed they did not have access to appropriate sex education, sexual assault and abuse education, and self-harm awareness. They also wanted education on drugs and harm reduction, and have easy access to harm reduction supplies.
Recommendations: Provide young people with ongoing education about and supplies for sexual health, sexual harm, self-harm, and drug-related harm reduction. Train placement providers on the range of young people’s health needs and the health issues they face.
- Young people reported not feeling prepared for their transition into adulthood. Sadly, young people believed they were being “spoon fed” by the system. This led many to remove themselves from a system of support they needed in an effort to prove they could be independent from it.
Recommendations: Collect data on the needs of aging-out youth and provide support such as financial, housing, employment, parenting, and career support; financial education; life skills; hygiene and care items; mentorship; and education funding.