Foster Care: A System in Crisis

Month’s of reporting on Washington State’s foster care program by InvestigateWest has shed light on a system under strain and in disarray; there is a major problem in Washington State’s foster care system. What actions should we take to fix the problem? Where should the conversation start? Take a listen as panelists Snohomish County Prosecutor Adam Cornell, Representative Ruth Kagi (D-Seattle), former Department of Social and Health Services employee Dee Wilson, advocacy lead and Washington State Parent Ally Committee/Children’s Home Society of Washington staffer Alise Hegle, and Foster Parents Association of Washington State Executive Director Mike Canfield chat with moderator and Town Hall Program Director Katy Sewall. Plus, we hear about promising fixes and solutions that are being considered to redress them. 

Despite having a master’s degree and a supervisory job with Washington state’s Children’s Administration, social worker Tanya Copenhaver struggled to make ends meet for her daughter Cassidy. She ultimately left the state agency for a hospital job – and increased her salary 30 percent.

Social worker churn undercuts Washington’s foster care system

Tanya Copenhaver followed in her father’s and grandmother’s footsteps by becoming a social worker for Washington state’s Children’s Administration, a difficult but fulfilling calling she never expected to give up. During 15 years of working in the foster care system, on a job considered among the hardest in the state, she worked her way up to supervisor. But even with a master’s degree and a management position, the single mom struggled to pay rent and daycare. She and her daughter ate at her mother’s house to save money. Last year, Copenhaver finally left the vocation she cherished to take a post at a Pierce County hospital – with a 30 percent pay raise.

For two years Karly Leib worked for a private agency that recruited foster parents. She reluctantly quit after getting worn down by the state foster system’s relentless struggles. “I thought, ‘How do I ask people to get involved in such a ridiculously broken system?’” she said.

Washington’s troubled foster care program struggles to keep foster parents

Over the course of four years, foster parent Veronica Moody of Kirkland took in babies and children with severe challenges, including drug exposure, extreme tantrums and nightmares, head-banging and third-degree burns. But that wasn’t the really hard part of the job, the part that drove away Moody and her husband Chris from accepting more kids. It was Washington state’s dysfunctional foster care system. “All the problems the state causes, due to lack of resources and lack of training, make our job as foster parents very difficult,” Moody said. “It burns you out.”

The Moodys’ tale is sadly familiar.

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What is your experience with foster care?

If you have a story about foster care or what happens after teens leave the system and start an independent life, we want to hear it. This is all confidential. If we want to use your story, we’ll make sure to talk to you first.View the form.

Vinny Wilson, 19, walks into his apartment, which he shares with his girlfriend, in south Seattle on 9/17/2013.
Vinny has sent much of his life in foster care. Many adults in his biological family have been involved with gangs. Since aging out Vinny has become determined to support and better himself. He works and attends college full-time. He wants to be an accountant. “When I was younger I would cry every night, do the dishes and daydream about my mom and dad coming back.” 

Credit: Mike Kane for InvestigateWest

Aging Out of Foster Care

There is a solution to the problem of “aging out,” but evidence on whether it works is scant. As legislators weigh the benefits with the predicted cost of scaling up the program to cover every young person about to age out of the system – including those with criminal records – InvestigateWest examines what happens what foster teens reach the end of the line.