Washington State is in the midst of one of the biggest changes to the child welfare system in decades – a shift in the way Children’s Administration (CA) social workers respond to reports of child abuse and neglect. This new approach – Family Assessment Response (FAR) – aims to engage and support families who come to the attention of the child welfare agency rather than to conduct a formal investigation, the latter of which increases the chances that a child will be removed from their home.

A responsible course of action with a change of this magnitude is to very carefully evaluate the effects on children and their families. Yet, while the Senate budget includes funding for a FAR evaluation, the current House budget does not.

We’re talking about a policy and practice change that will affect about two-thirds of families who interact with the child welfare system. Of course, reports of serious physical abuse and sexual abuse cases are not eligible for FAR, but the vast majority of CPS reports are not due to this type of harm to a child.

Many families may only need things that many of us take for granted – everything from help finding adequate family housing to financial support for essential bills like heat and electricity. Sometimes they just need to be connected to services that will help them address issues of depression, substance abuse or other parenting concerns. These are the types of issues that families in the child welfare system face that make it very difficult to adequately parent a child.

FAR, which was signed into law in 2012, began rolling out in Aberdeen, Lynnwood and selected areas of Spokane this January. By 2016, this approach will be implemented by Children’s Administration across the state.

While the program is expected to reduce the number of children in foster care and therefore save the state money – as it has done in Minnesota – we will only truly know the impact of FAR if it’s evaluated in our own state.

Any major shift in policy or procedure – especially when it involves some of the most vulnerable children and families in our state – needs a formal evaluation. When the medical profession makes changes to their procedures, we all expect them to evaluate whether these changes are best for the patient, so why not have the same expectation of a government agency whose primary mission is keeping children safe?

We are proud that Washington adopted FAR because of the many potential benefits – everything from reducing foster care costs to preventing the trauma for children taken from their home. Plus, FAR opens the door for additional federal dollars through a change in a federal rule that incentivizes preventative services.

But as a university-based organization, Partners for Our Children strongly believes you can’t stop at just adopting a new approach that has worked somewhere else – you must evaluate its effectiveness in Washington’s own unique system.  

That’s why we would strongly encourage the House to recognize the importance of a FAR evaluation by including funding for it in the budget. Both the House and Senate have shown their commitment to vulnerable children and families by funding a new parenting program for child welfare-involved families. The Senate has also included funding for FAR, funding to address a backlog in adoption cases, and funding to meet federal compliance issues with the child welfare IT system.  And, the House stepped up and included funding for Extended Foster Care. But a FAR evaluation is an extremely important issue that should not be ignored.

We owe it to the families that FAR will serve for years to come.

UPDATE: We are pleased to announce that the final budget includes funding for a FAR evaluation.

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