SEATTLE - For months, the KING 5 Investigators have followed the emotional case where a child was finally reunited with her grandparents after a bitter fight with the state. Now, a new report released Wednesday says time and again, Washington state unfairly puts children in foster care instead of with their relatives.
The report by the Office of the Family and Children's Ombudsman identifies two years worth of problems within the Department of Social and Health Services.
The number one issue highlighted in the report underscores the stories' findings - that the child welfare system needs to do a better job of following the law when it comes to placing children with relatives.
The Director Ombudsman Mary Meinig writes " the system needs to better support and maintain placement of dependent children with relatives."
Meinig also says in the report "Sometimes, the agency has removed children from long term (2 or more years) placements without sufficient cause. This has been devastating to relatives and children alike and many of these decisions have appeared arbitrary and capricious."
The KING 5 Investigators looked into the relative placement issue through several stories about Doug and AnneMarie Stuth of Enumclaw. Last Friday, they were finally reunited with their 3-year-old granddaughter after battling it out with the state.
The child was put in foster care nearly two years ago after social workers and a King County Superior Court judge ruled the grandparents were meddlers and trouble-makers. Officials involved in the case thought they were hurting efforts to reunite the baby with her biological mother The mother is the Stuth's teenage daughter who had the child when she was 16 years old.
The 109-page Ombudsman's report shows the problems the Stuths faced are not unique. It says complaints from relatives about unfair placements shot up 58 percent since 2006.
Two months ago, KING 5 News interviewed Meinig about the issue. She said that when children can't live with parents, they should stay with relatives unless they're at risk of abuse or neglect.
"Removing the child, it's once again, it's another removal from another loved one. We should try to avoid that at all cost," said Meinig.
The new report says that in many cases "(CPS) has removed children from relatives without sufficient cause". It also points out that those decisions are detrimental to the "psychological well being of the child."
That's exactly how the Stuths felt when KING first talked to them on-camera in November.
"I have never seen people so hell-bent on destroying one family and that to me is just inconceivable," said AnneMarie Stuth.
On Friday Judge Ronald Kessler ruled the state and a different judge on the case didn't properly follow Washington state law which mandates that relatives must be considered first before foster care.
On Wednesday afternoon by telephone, AnneMarie Stuth reacted to the report.
"I think it's wonderful that someone in the field is standing up and saying this is a problem," said Stuth. "It makes me feel like we're not crazy, that there are a lot of other grandparents out there going through the same thing. I'm hoping this changes the system. I hope it brings to light that the system should work in the best interest of the child, especially when there's a family out there that they know and love."
DSHS Communications Director Thomas Shapley sent KING-TV this statement in response to the ombudsman's report:
"We respect and appreciate the role of the Office of the Family and Children's Ombudsman. As always, we take to heart their review and recommendations. We have already discussed these cases with Ombudsman Meinig and her staff in the process of their producing the report. This kind of outside review makes a valuable contribution to our ongoing efforts to improve practices that will improve the well-being of children in the child welfare system.
It's important to note that the Ombudsman's office reports that it deems nearly two-thirds of the complaints it receives unfounded.
We will review the report and recommendations and will be working with the Ombudsman and her staff to find ways to better protect children in this state from abuse and neglect by their adult caretakers and bring permanence to their lives."