Explaining why he joined the Army to fight in Vietnam, Dennis Braddock jokes that he possessed an exaggerated sense of duty.
That same sensibility may have led Braddock one year ago to accept a job that few people seemingly would want: secretary of the Department of Social and Health Services, a multibillion-dollar and oft-criticized agency that intersects with the lives of one out of every five Washington residents.
DSHS is charged with removing neglected children from their parents, running the state's welfare system, monitoring homes for the elderly and developmentally disabled, and providing treatment to juvenile delinquents and sexual predators.
When it fails, the results are often tragic and grist for litigation. Last month 179 negligence lawsuits were pending against DSHS.
A public-opinion survey commissioned by DSHS last year determined that many people consider the agency mismanaged and wasteful. At every scandal, state legislators treat DSHS like a punching bag.
Yet Braddock, 57, accepted the job when Gov. Gary Locke called last summer. And it didn't take him long to start making changes.
He hired an outside lawyer to monitor lawsuits and help the agency limit its risk. He published an accountability scorecard so the public could track progress in areas such as infant-death rates and the number of people whose wages rise after leaving welfare.
Perhaps most important, Braddock has tried to change the agency's culture.
"It used to be that DSHS was closed, bunkerlike," he told a group of DSHS employees recently. "We need to be accountable for our successes and failures. We are in a risky business — we will have failures."
The last 12 months were dismal for DSHS. The agency spent more than $69 million in lawsuits, settling litigation and claims for past misdeeds.
The losses include $8.8 million for Linda David, a disabled woman who suffered long-term spousal abuse; $17.8 million for three men abused in a Bremerton group home; and $7.5 million for 13 boys abused at the OK Boys Ranch.
The crisis and litigation had DSHS hunkered down. The most public example of the agency's defensiveness was an opinion piece submitted to The Seattle Times by then-Secretary Lyle Quasim after the disclosure of the Linda David case in 1999. Quasim — a popular figure within DSHS — sought to defend the agency's handling of the matter.
The Governor's Office intervened and submitted a letter from Locke that began: "It's time for the excuses to stop."
Quasim resigned 10 months later, citing severe health concerns. Joe Dear, Locke's former chief of staff, commended Quasim but said the governor "wanted someone who was going to take accountability, who had respect of the employees but would not become captive to the bureaucracy."
After less than six weeks on the job, in August 2000, Braddock said DSHS may have made a mistake by reuniting 3-year-old Zy'Nyia Nobles with her mother, who later beat her to death.
"Dennis is a no-nonsense person. He doesn't make excuses," Locke said. "He's doing exactly what I asked him to do."
Braddock grew up in the small Franklin County farm town of Kahlotus. His father was the high-school principal, drove the bus, and taught chemistry and math. There were seven seniors in Dennis Braddock's graduating class.
After a stint at Eastern Washington University, he joined the Peace Corps and served in rural Pakistan. There he witnessed poverty and sickness on a scale unknown in the West. Dysentery and diarrhea were endemic, including among the Peace Corps volunteers.
Braddock returned home and enrolled at Washington State University. He joined the Army ROTC to defer his draft status so he could finish his education. In 1969, he was shipped to Vietnam as a helicopter pilot.
As the new person in the unit, Braddock remembers one rite of passage: purging dead soldiers' footlockers. After one battle, he weeded through eight lockers, throwing away trophy weapons, pornography and illicit love letters before shipping the rest back home. He wrote a poem filled with black humor about the experience.
"We knew the (war) was futile. To us, the thing of value was survival, and keeping losses to a minimum, because people were dying in vain," he said.
Those experiences gave Braddock a perspective that enables him to retain an analytical approach to the reports of abuse and neglect that arrive at his desk almost daily.
"You can't become emotional," Braddock said. "You have cases every day that are beyond belief, what people do to their kids. If you've been to Vietnam and Pakistan, these things are not very depressing. In world perspective, we do pretty well."
As Dear, Locke's former chief of staff, put it: "Dennis has a soft heart and a hard head."
Later, Braddock enrolled at Western Washington University, then was elected to the Bellingham City Council. In 1982, he was elected to the Legislature.
He developed an expertise in health care and a reputation for speaking his mind. He was known as "Dr. No" for his skepticism about other legislators' proposals. After a 1988 financial crisis at Western State Hospital — a state-run mental institution near Steilacoom in Pierce County — an exasperated Braddock was quoted as saying DSHS "has got to go."
He left the Legislature in 1992 after 10 years there — a self-imposed term limit. He became chief executive officer of Community Health Network of Washington, a health plan that serves migrants and the poor.
In 1997, a member of the network board, Carlos Oliveras, became ill with kidney disease. Oliveras and Braddock knew each other, but they weren't close; in fact, the two argued about how best to run the nonprofit, Braddock said.
Unbeknown to Oliveras, Braddock talked to his doctors, discovered he would be a suitable donor and offered Oliveras one of his kidneys. At the time, Braddock told friends that he went through the surgery because he couldn't sit by and watch a man die.
Braddock was planning to step down as chief executive when Locke asked him to head DSHS. He took a $50,000 cut in pay to take the job, which pays about $126,000 annually.
Locke said Braddock put off travel plans with his longtime partner, Janice Niemi, a King County Superior Court judge, who had retired a few months earlier.
"He didn't need the money. He didn't need the work," said Locke, adding that Braddock made a multiyear commitment to the agency.
Public confidence eroding
First, Braddock had to stop the bleeding, lawsuits and judgments that were eroding public confidence in the agency. He quickly realized that almost half his time was being eaten up with settlement discussions and litigation.
In October, he hired attorney Bernie Friedman, a clerk for Phil Talmadge, a state Supreme Court justice at the time, to fill a new position: special assistant/loss prevention and risk management.
To limit the number of lawsuits that claimed DSHS failed to follow its own procedures, Friedman asked department heads to review their practices; guidelines were to be dropped or obeyed.
Friedman attended how-to-sue-the-state seminars by plaintiffs' lawyers, and he instructed the Attorney's General Office, which represents DSHS in court, to consider settlements when the agency was clearly at fault, instead of risking hefty jury verdicts.
Lowering litigation fear
But Braddock also wanted to lift the fear of litigation from caseworkers who made difficult judgment calls, such as when to remove children from their parents: "I'd rather we're sued for something we do, rather than something we didn't do."
It seems a workable strategy. Last month, a King County Superior Court jury rejected a lawsuit filed by a family whose children had been taken by DSHS and then returned when reports of abuse turned out to be false.
Still, plaintiffs' attorneys are among the agency's staunchest critics.
Bellingham lawyer Timothy Farris, who has won several settlements against DSHS and is leading a class-action suit to force changes in the foster-care system, said it's too early to tell whether Braddock has brought a new approach to the agency. But he faults the secretary for not being an outspoken children's advocate and for not demanding that legislators adequately fund the agency.
"He needs to be a vocal, articulate spokesman for children. He needs to rock the boat," Farris said.
In most social-service agencies, the question is the same: How do you measure success?
For Braddock, the answer is the Accountability ScoreCard, a list of 15 year-to-year goals. The goals include:
• Reducing deaths of children receiving state assistance and placed out of their home from 30 children per 100,000 to 18 children per 100,000.
• Increasing the percentage of child-welfare investigations initiated within 10 days of a referral from 84 percent to 95 percent.
• Increasing the percentage of adults who are working or preparing to work within a month after receiving their first welfare check from 85 percent to 90 percent.
While social workers in the regional offices say they are barely conscious of the ScoreCard in their day-to-day affairs, advocacy groups generally praise the agency's focus on results.
"He is holding himself and his staff accountable, and you have to applaud that effort," said Sharon Osborne, executive director of Children's Home Society of Washington, a nonprofit organization that operates family and early-childhood services.
It's too early to tell whether DSHS is reducing deaths of children ages 1 through 9, but under the agency, the number of people looking for work within 30 days of receiving their first welfare check has not increased.
And some case workers complain that the requirement for more home visitations of vulnerable children came with no new resources.
"It's something added to a situation where people are already overwhelmed," said John Birnel, a social worker in the Seattle DSHS office. "It puts the agency in a liability situation, to require case workers to do things they just can't do."
Jury is still out
While Braddock has earned the support of Sen. Val Stevens, R-Arlington, and other lawmakers for his open-door policy and willingness to trim the DSHS medical budget by $50 million during negotiations this year, Stevens said the jury is still out on Braddock.
For the most part, the agency has weathered external challenges in the past year, including the earthquake — which caused the evacuation of a unit at Western State Hospital that housed patients found not guilty by reason of insanity — and a 10-week state-workers strike that caused minor disruptions in various state institutions. There have been small changes, such as Braddock's insistence that all DSHS workers improve customer service by leaving updated messages on their voice mails, detailing when they are in the office.
And the agency is slowly becoming more open, said Birnel, the social worker in the Seattle DSHS office. There is talk of creating a peer review of mistakes so social workers can talk about problems and learn from each other, he said.
"There is some genuine effort to change," Birnel said. "But it takes time."
Alex Fryer can be reached at 206-464-8124 or email@example.com.