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Front-Line DSHS Workers Offer Overwhelming Vote of ‘No Confidence’ in Denise Revels Robinson

Article by Erik Smith. Published on Tuesday, June 08, 2011 EST.

Children’s Administration Director Has Raised Concerns From the Start


Denise Revels Robinson.

UPDATE, June 8.–DSHS Secretary Susan Dreyfus says she has ‘full confidence’ in Denise Revels Robinson.

By Erik Smith

Staff writer/ Washington State Wire


OLYMPIA, June 7.—Denise Revels Robinson, the state Children’s Administration director appointed amid controversy a year and a half ago, has been handed a stinging rebuke by the employees she oversees.

            The front-line workers at the state Department of Social and Health Services voted overwhelmingly to express “no confidence” in her administration. Some 98.6 percent of the 783 workers who voted turned thumbs down on the top manager.

            “It’s a sobering result,” said Tim Welch, spokesman for the Washington Federation of State Employees. But he said the union will have no further comment.


            A Stormy Arrival


            Robinson has been under scrutiny ever since she arrived at DSHS to take over children’s services. The agency is responsible for state child-welfare services and places children with foster-care and adoption agencies.
            Recruited from Wisconsin by Secretary Susan Dreyfus, a fellow Badger-Stater, Robinson had spent 12 years as director of the Bureau of Milwaukee Child Welfare. She was forced to transfer to a different job after the agency was criticized for the way it handled the Nov. 2008 beating death of a 13-month-old child.

Young Christopher Thomas and his sister had been tortured by their aunt, a court-ordered foster parent, even as caseworkers repeatedly visited their home. Wisconsin officials overhauled the county’s foster care system after an investigation found a “series of lapses.” Coverage in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel at the time of Robinson’s appointment highlighted the fact that 22 children had died under her watch between 2004 and 2008.

            Robinson put the trouble a thousand miles behind her when she arrived in Washington in Oct. 2009. Dreyfus, a former administrator of the Wisconsin Division of Children and Family Services, pointed to Robinson’s 40 years experience in child-welfare programs. Dreyfus told a legislative committee in this state, “Denise and I have worked together since 1997, and I am delighted that she has kind of agreed to throw her life up in the air for me and come out to the state of Washington to lead the Children’s Administration.”


            Overstepped Authority


            In a letter mailed to Children’s Administration employees, a union task force said it gave Robinson the benefit of the doubt when she was appointed. But morale sunk as Robinson pursued efforts to farm out much of the agency’s case-management work to private agencies statewide. The union maintains Robinson overstepped authority granted by the Legislature.

Lawmakers authorized a pilot project in 2009 but the effort was supposed to be limited to two demonstration sites so that results could be analyzed. A Thurston County Superior Court judge agreed with the union and last month issued a preliminary injunction blocking expansion of the effort.

“We have been forthcoming and clear about exercising our right to bargain over numerous matters,” it said. “Regrettably, the assistant secretary has responded by canceling meetings, or not scheduling them at all, and scheduling bargaining sessions over numerous issues after the matters were in full implementation.”

The letter went on to say, “Desperately needed resources have been diverted to the implementation of new processes that are premature, ill conceived or impediments to the mission of the agency.”

A Children’s Administration spokeswoman said Robinson was not available for comment Monday night.


            Hostility Toward Employees


The letter goes on to complain Robinson has targeted employees who have questioned her direction:

“In these times of extreme economic downturn, the assistant secretary has reduced, or eliminated completely, resources necessary to keep children safe and preserve families.

“Failure to address workload has resulted in workload levels that are oppressive, puts children at risk, and has created an environment of management hostility toward employees and fear of retaliation.

“Other actions by the assistant secretary such as targeting employees who ask legitimate questions, unnecessary and frequent changes to policies and procedures related to work practices and child safety, reductions in resources available to successfully reunite families, rush to permanency, coercion to return children to homes based on cost saving instead of safety are a dangerous hindrance that adversely affects the child welfare system that exists to preserve, provide safety and serve the needs of children and families.” 

            In the election results counted Monday, ballots were cast by 37.4 percent of the 2,273 Childrens’ Administration workers eligible to vote.

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