Broken: Fixing state’s foster care system is Caldier’s personal quest

Washington state’s child foster care system is burdened with responsibility for too many children with significant behavioral needs, and too few dollars and staff to adequately care for them, according to critics in the state Legislature. Photo: Courtesy of Families First

Washington state’s child foster care system is burdened with responsibility for too many children with significant behavioral needs, and too few dollars and staff to adequately care for them, according to critics in the state Legislature. Photo: Courtesy of Families First

PORT ORCHARD — Having yet to reach the tumultuous teenage years, Michelle Caldier recalls another emerging turmoil in her life as a 9-year-old child living in South Kitsap. At an age when little girls in third grade are more likely to fret over the design of their classroom Valentine’s Day cards, she remembers living a life teetering on the edge just at the time her parents split.

When her 10th birthday passed, Caldier’s unfolding dysfunctional family life turned ugly. Her mother remarried, exchanging vows with a man whose lasting imprint on the young girl took the form of not only physical — but sexual — abuse. Her stepfather’s enduring legacy? Physical scars resulting from violent outbursts remain to this day, not to mention the emotional, soul-searing wounds of sexual abuse.

Recalling her life as somewhat like walking a tightrope without a net, Caldier said being removed from a home environment dominated by physical and sexual abuse was later complicated by a life of state-sponsored, dispassionate neglect.

“Other than the two families I stayed with, I always felt like the state and (my) caseworker really didn’t care,” Caldier recalled in a phone interview. “That’s the sad part of it. Even to this day, I carry the scars from those years.”

But thankfully, the bonds she shared — and continues to share — with her biological sisters endure. She questions if she could have survived the experience without their love and support.

“I’m blessed that I have a fantastic relationship with my sisters,” Caldier says.

“I have to say, I was very motivated to give my daughter a very different life than what I had. I may not have been (as motivated) if I had not gone through those experiences. I wouldn’t have understood how important it is to stay in school, get a decent-paying job when you’re young even when you’re not thinking much about the future.”

That motivation kept Caldier focused on achieving a successful career as a dentist. She later used it to get elected in 2014 as a state representative in the 26th legislative district. And at home, she was determined to provide her own daughter with a stable upbringing she never experienced.

“When I was young, I was motivated,” Caldier — who worked three jobs at one point — said. “I knew what my path was — I wanted to be a dentist and I knew what I had to do. I put my blinders on and kept going. I knew that was my ticket to turn my daughter’s life around.”

A searing memory from childhood fueled her motivation.

“My mother worked at the Pancake House. We were poor — really poor. I remember never wanting that (for myself). I remember my mother crying because she couldn’t pay the bills and many times didn’t have any food. I remember feeling that ‘I don’t ever want that’ as an adult. I didn’t ever want to be in that spot where I’m worried about my daughter having food on the table.”

Now a state representative, Caldier is using her legislative position as a platform to help others who are in the foster-care morass she once was.

Caldier, a Republican, has crossed the aisle in Olympia in her personal quest to fix the state’s dysfunctional child foster-care system. She has worked with a Democratic state legislative veteran, Rep. Ruth Kagi of Seattle, who chairs the House Early Learning and Human Services Committee, on a number of foster-care bills over the last couple of sessions in Olympia.

Kagi also has co-chaired a commission appointed by Gov. Jay Inslee last year to evaluate creating the Children’s Administration, an offshoot from the state’s labyrinthine Department of Social and Health Services, as a means to make the foster-care system more manageable and accountable.

After “graduating” from the state’s foster-care system as a young person, Caldier said she took on the role of a foster-care parent after becoming an adult.

Armed with knowledge gained from both experiences, the legislator has a unique perspective to share in Olympia.

“Once I got to the Legislature, I naturally became involved in foster-care issues,” Caldier said.

“If you don’t have any personal experience with (the foster-care system), it’s really hard to understand what the problems are.

“The interesting thing is that when I got elected, I had a whole bunch of ideas. And as I dug deeper, I learned that (the necessary laws) are already in place. (DSHS) just wasn’t following them.

“The Legislature has tried over the years to fix the foster-care system, but if the agency isn’t enforcing those rules because of cultural issues or whatever, then you’re never going to improve the outcome.”

Upcoming in the second part of a series: What is at the root of the foster-care system’s problems that Olympia is trying to fix? And why are foster parents abandoning the system in droves?

State Rep. Michelle Caldier, R-Port Orchard (left), and state Rep. Ruth Kagi, D-Seattle, have been at the forefront of child foster-care issues in the state Legislature in Olympia. Photo: Courtesy of state Sen. Michelle Caldier’s office

State Rep. Michelle Caldier, R-Port Orchard (left), and state Rep. Ruth Kagi, D-Seattle, have been at the forefront of child foster-care issues in the state Legislature in Olympia. Photo: Courtesy of state Sen. Michelle Caldier’s office

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