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'No confidence' vote against Washington child welfare leader fails to pass

Unionized workers at the Department of Children Youth and Families (DCYF) who aimed to oust their boss in a rare effort failed to get enough votes to move forward.

OLYMPIA, Wash — Unionized workers at the Department of Children Youth and Families (DCYF) who aimed to oust their boss, Secretary Ross Hunter, failed to collect enough signatures to move forward with their effort to urge Gov. Jay Inslee to fire and replace him.

The Washington Federation of State Employees (WFSE), a union that represents 2,800 DCYF employees and thousands of other state workers, confirmed Tuesday that their months-long “no-confidence” vote against Hunter ended. Leaders said they collected more than 1,600 signatures from DCYF employees who supported Hunter’s replacement – a couple hundred votes shy of the two-thirds majority of their membership base they required to call for his resignation.

Despite the failure of the “no-confidence” petition, which workers planned to deliver to Inslee, WFSE leaders called their campaign a success.

“I feel like we have the agency’s attention now, so I’m hopeful,” said Jeanette Obelcz, who chairs the DCYF policy committee for WFSE and also works as a Child Protective Services supervisor at DCYF. “But I would definitely say that (Hunter) dodged a bullet.”

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

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

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.

In a September KING 5 interview, Hunter defended his leadership – touting the agency has made progress under his watch at reducing caseloads, reducing the number of children in foster care and increasing the number of children who are placed with relatives.

Credit: KING
Ross Hunter, DCYF Secretary

He blamed some of the struggles of his agency, including safety risks to staff, on forces beyond his control – such as mental and behavioral health challenges affecting children across the nation.

“This is the hardest job I've ever taken on in my life. I come to work every day, just as my staff come to work every day, trying to make outcomes better for kids,” Hunter said. “It’s a very, very challenging body of work. I have tremendous respect for the staff.”

In the wake of the union's calls for leadership changes, Washington state Rep. Tom Dent, R-Moses Lake, one of the legislative architects of the state’s child welfare agency, said in July 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 could not be reached Tuesday for additional comment. 

Despite growing criticism of Hunter's leadership, Inslee and his team have repeatedly defended and supported the DCYF secretary publicly.

“We are not considering any changes in leadership,” Inslee said in an October KING 5 interview.

Obelcz, the union representative, said WFSE considers the “no confidence” campaign a success because DCYF leaders have started to bring forward proposals that would support workers, such as mental health resources for caseworkers.

“The campaign was always about more than just Ross Hunter. The campaign was about our agency leadership not hearing the concerns from the field,” she said. “We've seen movement on some issues… I’m hopeful that means they are hearing us and that they are listening, and that we’re going to see a shift within our agency.”

Jason Wettstein, DCYF spokesperson, wrote in a statement Tuesday that agency leadership had a productive conversation with the union in recent weeks.

“We look forward to more progress and productive work in the future in support of union members and our staff," he wrote.

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