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'An extreme step:' Washington child welfare workers call on Inslee to fire top DCYF boss

Unionized state workers have launched a no-confidence vote against their boss, Department of Children, Youth and Families Secretary Ross Hunter.

SEATTLE — Unionized workers at the Department of Children Youth and Families (DCYF) are calling on Gov. Jay Inslee to fire and replace their boss, Secretary Ross Hunter.

Members of the Washington Federation of State Employees (WFSE), a union that represents 47,000 state workers, have launched a no-confidence vote against Hunter.

The effort, which began in late June, stems from what workers describe as long-simmering frustration over a disconnect between frontline employees and the child welfare agency’s top boss. 

DCYF workers claim their attempts to get Hunter to meaningfully respond to their concerns over issues like unmanageable caseloads, high staff turnover and unsafe working conditions have been unsuccessful – met with “ignorance” and “indifference” to work performed by employees and the issues they raise, according to a summary of their detailed timeline of complaints on the state union website.

“It boils down to the feeling that he does not understand what we do and he doesn’t have an interest in understanding what we do,” said Jeanette Obelcz, who chairs the DCYF policy committee for WFSE and also works as a Child Protective Services supervisor at DCYF. “So we aren’t getting the resources that we need to do our jobs, and that means that we aren’t getting the resources to keep children safe.”

Hunter, a former seven-term state representative, has led DCYF since Inslee appointed him to the cabinet-level position in 2017 when the child welfare agency was formed. He’s been publicly scrutinized in recent years for his leadership of the state’s newest agency, which has faced a series of challenges since its creation, including high-profile lawsuits, violent attacks on frontline workers, inadequate placements of at-risk foster youth and multiple escapes from one of the state’s medium-maximum security juvenile rehabilitation facilities.

“We’ve reached a point now where we feel like without a leadership change, we’re not going to make any progress as a department,” said Obelcz. “Workers want to see change. They want to feel like the person in charge cares about them and cares about the families they serve.”

Hunter, through a DCYF spokesperson, declined to comment on the no-confidence vote, which is scheduled to wrap up in mid-August. 

“We acknowledge the challenge and demands of the work in child welfare and take concerns of staff seriously,” wrote Jason Wettstein, DCYF spokesperson, in a statement. “Secretary Hunter has been communicating with both the union and individual employees. He will continue to engage employees on the challenges identified.”

Mike Faulk, Inslee’s spokesperson, said the governor’s office has not yet received a no-confidence petition against the DCYF secretary but would “consider it like any other.”

“The agency does challenging work and Secretary Hunter’s leadership has been integral to their efforts to serve Washingtonians,” Faulk wrote in a July 31 statement.

Faulk added that Hunter and other DCYF leadership have been "personally engaged" on the issues brought forward by union workers, but he doesn't have the power to do more. 

"Several of their requests require legislative action the secretary has advocated for but legislators did not approve," Faulk wrote. "Despite his zealous advocacy for the agency's workforce, the secretary does not have carte blanche; he must work within his authority and funding levels as defined by the legislature." 

Faulk added that the union's other requests either sit within the collective bargaining arena or take time to fully implement. 

It's not the first time Inslee has shared support for Hunter in the wake of criticism about the secretary's leadership. Following a 2021 KING 5 investigation, which highlighted the mistreatment of foster youth and concerns raised by DCYF's after hours staff, Inslee said he was confident in Hunter's leadership of the department.

"I am confident we are moving in the right direction,"  Inslee said at an October 2021 press conference. 

Before delivering a no-confidence petition to Inslee, the state union seeks to have two-thirds of DCYF’s 2,800 union-represented employees endorse the vote by mid-August. Mike Yestramski, president of WFSE, said the union is currently about halfway to that goal.

Yestramski said no-confidence votes are rare in Washington state, and the union's decision to launch the effort wasn’t made lightly. 

“It’s been years in the making. We have been attempting through informal conversations as well as through formal avenues to address the multiple issues within the department – recruitment and retention, staff safety, even things that might seem as minor as policy clarifications,” he said.  

Yestramski explained the union followed a strict, multi-layered process before initiating the no-confidence vote, which culminated with the unanimous endorsement by the WFSE executive board on June 23. Earlier this month, the Washington State Labor Council also unanimously supported the action, Yestramski said.

“This is an extreme step," Yestramski said. "And it’s one of the last efforts that we take to institute change. If no change comes after this step, I don’t know what is next, but it will likely be a very extreme response.”

Lawmaker who spearheaded DCYF creation calls for leadership change

Union workers aren’t the only ones pushing for new DCYF leadership.

Washington state Rep. Tom Dent, R-Moses Lake, one of the legislative architects of the state’s child welfare agency, said Monday that he believes it’s time for Hunter to go.

“It sure looks like maybe there needs to be a change,” said Dent, co-chair of the DCYF oversight board.

Dent, a five-term lawmaker, sponsored the 2017 law that severed the state's children and family programs from the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services which, critics said, was failing to protect children.

“We're not fixing it, and that was the whole idea when we formed the DCYF in the first place was to fix it – was to fix our child welfare system,” he said. “We wanted to create a new agency, not just rearranging deck chairs, but we wanted to change the culture of the agency to where we could be more positive and move forward in a positive way.”


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