• September 2012
  • Vol. 13, No. 8

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Washington State's ICW Case Review

After its 2003 Federal Child and Family Services Review (CFSR), staff from the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) Children’s Administration conducted a special evaluation of the State’s Indian Child Welfare cases. Concerned with what they saw, the agency met with Tribal representatives and agreed to further evaluate and improve Indian Child Welfare (ICW) practice in Washington.

"This is not a State ICW review," said Lyn Craik, Supervisor of the Central Case Review Team. "This is a partnership and collaboration; a Tribal-State case review. We have had that value since the beginning."

That collaboration began in 2004 in the form of a workgroup composed of staff from the DSHS Children's Administration and representatives from Tribes, Recognized American Indian Organizations, and the Indian Policy Advisory Committee. Together, the workgroup developed the ICW Case Review Tool. Modeled after the CFSR process, the ICW Case Review Tool aimed to increase collaboration and partnership between the State and Tribes, increase staff knowledge of ICW, improve ICW practice to meet the best interests of American Indian children and families, and identify systemic barriers to improving outcomes.

"We had concerns about disproportionality and recognized that there were areas that needed improvement in our ICW work," said Sharon Gilbert, DSHS Deputy Director for Field Operations. "There was a strong commitment by the State and the Tribes to develop a quality assurance protocol that could address the disproportionate number of Indian children in the child welfare system through training and ongoing evaluation of our work." 

Each 4-day review is conducted at the regional level, one review that examines a sample of cases from each of the State's six regional hubs. "We're always trying to review more cases," said Deborah Purce, Executive Staff Director for DSHS' Children's Administration's Division of Quality Management and Accountability. "In the first review, we looked at 176 cases for an average of 25–35 per site. In 2008, we looked at 217 cases or 30–35 cases per site. We look at child protective service cases, voluntary service cases, and out-of-home care cases." 

Review teams are composed of approximately 12 people: 6 Tribal-State volunteers, including social workers, supervisors, and program managers, and 6 members of the State's Central Case Review Team. In order to be a member of a review team, one must have a minimum of 2 years' Indian child welfare experience and complete a 1-day training.

A Tribal and a State reviewer evaluate each case together, building consensus on ratings across a number of indicators, including inquiry of Indian status, family and Tribal engagement, cultural connections, court notification, placement preference, safety, well-being, and permanency. On each case reviewed, feedback identifying strengths and areas needing improvement is provided to the supervisor, social workers, and management. Regional and statewide reports are written and disseminated outlining strengths and areas needing improvement. Regional staff collaborate with Tribal representatives to develop an implementation plan for practice improvement.

"Staff at the Tribal and State levels were not always familiar with the ICW laws and agreements and how they should be followed," said Liz Meuller, Tribal Council Vice Chair/Government Liaison for the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe, who, along with Craik, conducts all review participant trainings. "That is what we wanted in this review—criteria that would set forth clear practice guidelines."

Craik added: "That's what social workers want to know: What are the steps? We wanted to demystify ICW cases and we're doing that. We've had workers—many with several years' ICWA experience—say this case review tool taught them more about ICW practice than anything else."

Thus far, two statewide reviews have been conducted, in 2007 and again in 2009. Washington State passed its own Indian Child Welfare Act in 2011, requiring some modifications to the DSHS ICW Case Review Tool. The third round of reviews began in  August 2012.

Since the first review, improvements have been made in identification of Indian status and assessing and adequately addressing safety threats. The most substantial change in practice has been the inquiry of Indian heritage. "Now, we are sending out inquiry letters and contacting Tribes within 1 working day," said Craik. "We are making improvements in maintaining cultural connections when a child is removed from the home and working with the Tribes regarding placement preference. It has a big impact on outcomes."

The case review tool also has played a critical role in professional development. "This is an ongoing training for social workers. The case review tool is not just for gathering data. It's developmental. Staff across the State, whether they're social workers, managers, or supervisors, learn from applying the tool to their own cases," said Craik.

She added that implementing a Tribal-State case review model takes patience and a commitment to relationship building and collaboration. "Something like this isn't built over night. It took from 2004—when we started holding meetings—to 2007 when we had the first review. It continues today. We train together. We review the cases together. The unique aspect of this review is collaboration."

Special thanks to Debora Purce, Executive Staff  Director for the Division of Quality Management and Accountability, DSHS Children's Administration, Sharon Gilbert, Deputy Director for Children’s Administration Field Operations, Betsy Tulee, ICW Manager, Lyn Craik, Supervisor for the Central Review Team, Liz Meuller, Tribal Council Vice Chair/Government Liaison for the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe, for providing information for this article.

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