Governments, to borrow an old axiom, often are effective at rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. In other words, sometimes change for the sake of change is confused with genuine progress.
That is an adage to keep in mind with the creation of the Washington Department of Children, Youth and Families, which was passed by the Legislature and recently signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee. The law combines already existing departments to create a cabinet-level position, and as the state reconfigures how it delivers services to needy families, the move must be accompanied by defined goals and defined measures for assessing achievement.
The agency will oversee a variety of services for at-risk youth currently covered by the Department of Social and Health Services, the Department of Early Learning, and the Juvenile Rehabilitation office. Ross Hunter, previously director of the Department of Early Learning, has been selected by Inslee to lead the agency, which was created out of a recommendation from a Blue Ribbon Commission on the Delivery of Services to Children and Families. The agency is tasked with using data to better target needy populations, and Inslee said, “The vision for this department comes right out of the bill itself: that Washington’s children and youth grow up safe and healthy.”
The bill, which calls for an additional $6.3 million in expenditures, was approved by a 77-17 vote in the House and a 42-7 tally in the Senate. Rep. Brandon Vick, R-Vancouver, was the only Southwest Washington lawmaker to vote against the measure.
The question now becomes whether the agency will improve services for Washington children and families, or whether it is simply a rearranging of assistance designed to make it look like lawmakers have achieved something. In this regard, Hunter has a strong track record, with good progress being made toward benchmarks for early learning — specifically, readying Washington students for kindergarten.
Among the priorities for the new agency will be reducing the caseload for social workers and adding more preventive programs. Research has increasingly demonstrated that traumatic experiences in early childhood have a lifelong impact, emphasizing the need for early intervention. As another axiom says, we can pay for it now, or pay for it later in terms of people who require social services as adults. Hunter said, “Recent science about how young brains develop allows us to rethink many long-held beliefs and invest upstream, preventing harm to young people.” Inslee echoed that by saying, “We want to prevent harm to children and youth rather than just react to it.”
That is a worthy goal, and it is one that can be cost-effective. But words born of ambition do not equate success. That will come only through the establishment of measurable benchmarks relating to education and child-welfare services. Empirical data will be needed to prove the effectiveness of the programs and to hold the agency accountable to the public. If goals are not spelled out or not being met, changes must be made. As a lingering crisis in the state’s mental-health system demonstrates, problems are difficult to fix once they become entrenched.
In 2016, WalletHub.com ranked Washington 22nd among states in terms of “neediness” for underprivileged children. For a prosperous state that has a strong focus upon needy citizens, that is unacceptable. Ideally, the Department of Children, Youth and Families will help mitigate that while providing proof of its effectiveness.