Rep. Jim Walsh wrote the proposal, aiming to protect kids that are removed from a parent based on abuse, neglect or abandonment. The bill was created to honor 6-year-old Oakley Carlson, who has been missing since February 2021.
"Oakley hasn’t been seen physically in two years. How can that happen? How? How can that happen? I pray that no other grandchild or grandmother has to go through this hell because I don’t know whether my granddaughter is alive or dead," said Cherie Roberts, Oakley’s former foster grandmother.
Friday was the cut-off for 2023 legislative bills to advance out of committee. However, the Oakley Carlson Act has a different deadline since it is budget-related legislation. Supporters, including the child’s former foster mother, said the extra time gives them a fighting chance at protecting children from what Oakley went through.
"After Oakley was returned to her bios to what would be a literal hell on earth for her, I called twice with concerns with abuse," said Jamie Jo Hiles, the former foster mother. "My daughter’s life should not be used for an agenda. My daughter is missing and DCYF played a part in failing to protect her."
The 6-year-old was last seen in February 2021. Her biological parents have not been charged in her disappearance, but have been under scrutiny for refusing to help investigators find her. The pair served short jail sentences for endangering another child in their care.
Hiles said she blamed Washington State Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) for not doing its job in protecting the child.
The proposal moves to hold DCYF more accountable. It calls for the agency to expand its involvement with families, including increased monitoring to five years following a child’s reunion to parents who’ve had previous legal and substance abuse issues.
Rep. Travis Couture said too many children are in these dangerous situations. He mentioned the 3-year-old boy from Tacoma, who was found dead at home with several injuries including cuts, bruises and burns all over his face and body. Court documents said his mother, 25-year-old Ivey Moore, told detectives she was under the supervision of DCYF and Child Protective Services. Court documents said the woman told detectives she used methamphetamine days before the little boy’s death. She is accused of beating and killing her son and is facing murder charges.
"It’s my estimation that something like [HB] 1397 could have prevented what happened just days ago. What evidence is there when we’re reunifying kids with their biological parents while they’re on substance abuse to say that they are safe? And why does this keep happening? And how many kids have died under CPS supervision and DCYF care?" asked Couture.
Allison Krutsinger, the director of public affairs for DCYF, testified the agency can’t explain individual cases due to confidentiality laws. She said the real threat is the lack of treatment to the growing crisis of substance abuse.
"We need ready access to [substance use disorder] treatment and recovery services in every community throughout the state. Those do not exist today," said Krutsinger.
DCYF’s director of public affairs also mentioned, "Foster care is meant to be a temporary solution while parents mitigate safety threats and risks that exist for children. When safety threats have been addressed by the parents, DCYF has a legal obligation to follow the law and make recommendations to the court that children be returned home. Ultimately, the court has the final decision in the outcome."
Kati Durkin of the Washington Federation of State Employees said there would be a lack of funding, resources and a staff shortage if the bill passes. She said the bill would increase the workload on DCYF caseworkers and potentially affect a child’s safety.
"The standard that they are supposed to be covering at any given time is 12, which they are already above as it stands right now. And this bill would likely increase that to 70," said Durkin.
The deadline for House Bill 1397 to advance out of committee is Feb. 24.