Due to legislation recently passed by the state Legislature, Judges in Washington state will have to weigh the harm of removing children from their parents before placing them in foster care, if signed by Gov. Jay Inslee.
The legislation, which for the first time recognizes the inherent trauma of family separation to children and parents, also requires the court to find a causal connection between the parent’s conduct and the risk of harm to a child before ordering an emergency removal; to consider whether services to the parents would address the issues before ordering removal; and to prioritize placement of a child with relatives over strangers if a child can’t remain safely with their parents.
The legislation addresses the initial stages of a dependency case, when children are removed but before allegations against parents have been proven. It requires that courts make a finding of “imminent physical harm” – prior to separating a family – language that narrows the focus to the immediate situation.
Advocates hailed passage of House Bill 1227, called the Keeping Families Together Act, because it builds on extensive research showing that removing children from their family causes children profound harm and that children often have better outcomes over time if allowed to remain with their families. It also works to counter the extreme racism of the system: Black and Indigenous children are about twice as likely to be removed from their families as white children, according to a 2019 state analysis.
“This legislation is long overdue,” said Shrounda Selivanoff, public policy director for the Children’s Home Society of Washington. “We know that it’s harmful to remove children from their families, and yet that’s what the system does: It tears families apart. This legislation will force us to begin thinking differently. It will force judges and state officials to look for ways to support parents, not take away their children.”
“The state will no longer be able to remove a child due only to a parent’s poverty, disability, or substance use,” said Tara Urs, special counsel for civil policy and practice at the King County Department of Public Defense. “This bill puts in place a clearer system of analysis – a kind of decision tree – that means there will be less discretion in the system and thus less room for implicit biases to play a role in the decision to separate families.”