Washington child safety laws questioned after Port Townsend baby’s death

Jan 25, 2024, 4:30 PM

port townsend baby death...

Kah Tai Lagoon Nature Park, where the body of the baby was located by law enforcement. (Photo courtesy of the City of Port Townsend)

(Photo courtesy of the City of Port Townsend)

The death of a three-week-old baby in Port Townsend is now prompting questions about a Washington law passed last year that left the child in the care of his father, a known drug user.

Jefferson County Prosecutor James Kennedy said this kind of case spotlights serious problems with the “Keeping Families Together Act.”

“When the legislature passed this law, what occurred in Port Townsend is not something that should have caught anybody by surprise,” Kennedy said. “This should have been easily foreseeable as a consequence.”

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The law that took effect last July raises the bar for when state agencies can remove a child from the home. It states that poverty or substance abuse by themselves do not constitute “imminent physical harm” to a child that would allow social services to take custody.

“What that means is homeless people with serious substance abuse issues, can take their kids home or can take their kids out of the hospital without the department placing the child in foster care,” Kennedy said.

Court documents show the baby was born with fentanyl in his system on Christmas Day. The state Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) gave temporary custody to the father, 37-year-old Jordan Sorenson, who has a history of substance abuse. Sorenson passed initial drug tests to care for the baby, but then started not complying with testing and, a few days later, disappeared with the infant. DCYF caseworkers contacted Port Townsend police, who located Sorenson last Saturday and discovered the baby’s body in the bushes near Kah Tai Lagoon.

“I don’t attribute what happened specifically to DCYF,” Kennedy told KIRO Newsradio. “I think that their hands were tied based on the change to the state law last year. And as long as that law remains intact, I have a lot of concerns about this repeating itself throughout the state.”

An autopsy on the baby’s body was completed Wednesday, and a cause of death had not yet been revealed, but Kennedy believes drug use was occurring, or had occurred, in the run-up to the death of the child.

Rep. Travis Couture, R-Allyn, introduced a bill this session to try to reverse some of the language in the “Keep Families Together Act.” If adopted, House Bill 2233 would classify the presence of illegal drugs as an “imminent harm” to children and require the immediate removal of children from caretakers who use the substances. (A PDF of the original bill can be viewed here.)

“If you’re using hard drugs like fentanyl, you just do not have the capacity to parent your child,” Couture said. “Especially if they’re a baby.”

DCYF on the current state law

A DCYF spokesperson declined to comment on the case in Port Townsend, but provided a statement on the current state law, highlighting the challenges the department faces when keeping children safe in Washington.

“First, there is scale. In 2022, DCYF caseworkers provided a face-to-face response for more than 60,000 children where there were allegations of abuse or neglect,” DCYF’s statement read. “Only 6% resulted in placement into foster care, but the volume of work is immense. Keeping kids at home is the right thing to do, when it can be done safely, and it requires more intensive engagement with families in the home. This requires staff.”

DCYF also discussed the fentanyl epidemic within the state and the lack of community-based resources for children and families.

“Washington has seen increased child fatalities and near fatalities involving fentanyl,” DCYF’s statement continued. “Most of these critical incidents are situations with no apparent imminent safety threat to the child, but nevertheless cases with high risk due to presence of this drug.”

DCYF also pointed out that since the new law took effect, removal of children from the home has decreased by 23%, with the largest reductions in Pierce and Yakima counties. Additionally, more families have chosen to engage in voluntary services, including safety plans to keep children at home.

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But Kennedy said, regardless of the intent of the current law, this case showcases the need for a second look.

“The name of the law is the ‘Keeping Families Together Act’ but seems to completely ignore that there are some families that should not have been kept together,” he said. “It’s putting children at risk.”

Sorenson is being held on $200,000 bail. His arraignment is scheduled for Feb. 2.

More charges could be forthcoming once the child’s autopsy results are released.

You can read more of Kate Stone’s stories here. Follow Kate on X, formerly known as Twitter, or email her here.

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Washington child safety laws questioned after Port Townsend baby’s death