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WA bill meant to safeguard foster children appears to have died in committee

Jeanie Lindsay/Northwest News Network
Demonstrators stand on the steps of the Washington Statehouse to show their support for House Bill 1397 a week before its first scheduled committee hearing.

A bill inspired by the case of missing child Oakley Carlson is stalled in the Washington Legislature. But supporters hope it can still be revived.

Oakley Carlson was a baby when she was removed from her home in Grays Harbor County and sent to live with a foster family. She was last seen alive in 2021 after being reunited with her biological parents who have a history of substance use.

The legislation, House Bill 1397, aims to increase oversight of the reunification process for children whose parents have substance use disorders. It failed to make it out of committee before a critical cutoff deadline last Friday.

Many foster parents, including Carlson's foster mom Jamie Jo Hiles, said during a hearing last week that current state policies lack enough protections for children. Hiles directly called out the state agency tasked with overseeing Carlson's case, the Department of Children, Youth, and Families.

"My daughter is missing and DCYF played a part in failing to protect her," she said.

According to the legislation, if a parent's substance use was a factor in the child being removed from their home, the parent must undergo six months of drug testing before regaining custody. The state would continue supervising the family for five years following reunification.

People who testified in opposition to the bill said it would unfairly punish parents who use substances but are not a danger to their children. Some expressed concerns that the state would be unable to support the additional workload as staffing remains limited.

Susan Stoner, the director of the state's Parent-Child Assistance Program, said that drug testing is not a foolproof way to determine sobriety, and that the state should avoid applying a "one size fits all approach" to parents who struggle with substance use disorders.

"These reforms will affect thousands of families across the state," she said. "We really should carefully evaluate the circumstances in each of these cases."

A spokesperson from the Washington Department of Children, Youth, and Families said she couldn't comment on Oakley Carlson's case because of confidentiality rules, and also echoed concerns about the legislation.

Allison Krutsinger, the agency's director of government affairs and community engagement, emphasized that the state needs to expand treatment resources for parents.

"We need ready access to [substance use disorder] treatment and recovery services in every community throughout the state," Krutsinger said.

On Friday, the bill's sponsor, Rep. Jim Walsh (R-Aberdeen), urged committee members to pass the measure before the deadline.

"I believe it is an urgent bill and I encourage all of us to do what's right," Walsh said.

The committee did not vote on the bill. But Walsh added a fiscal note that could provide the legislation with a path forward.

Lawmakers face a second cutoff deadline for bills that have a financial impact this week.