OLYMPIA, Wash. -- A ground-breaking problem solver investigation is firing up state lawmakers.
Late last month KOMO News reported that the most vulnerable children in Washington state are dying at an alarming rate.
Key lawmakers plan to use the information uncovered to force stronger protections for children under state custody.
"Am I fired up for this? you're darn right!" said Rep. Mike Armstrong, R-Wenatchee.
KOMO News spent more than two years analyzing the death reports of children who had had some contact with the state's children's administration. The investigation uncovered startling and disturbing numbers.
Since 2002, the state ruled 121 children died of abuse or neglect. That's more than one child dying every single month.
Michael Ravenell's son, Kekoa, was one of those children. Ravenell called Child Protective Services several times, concerned his son was being abused.
"Bottom line: the system failed me," said Ravenell. "I wish he was still with us here."
Both state Sen. Val Stevens, R-Arlington, and Armstrong were shocked by what KOMO's investigation revealed.
"My fire has just grown as I watched, as I watched your show and your presentation," Armstrong said. "I got emotional the first time I saw it."
Armstrong will push the Legislature in January to break apart the Department of Social and Health Services and make children's administration a separate agency.
Currently DSHS dwarfs all other state agencies with a nearly $20 billion budget and 19,000 employees.
"Everybody that works at DSHS considers their agency to be an agency, within an agency, within an agency," said Armstrong.
Stevens has worked for years to improve the system but says she's never been able to get hard numbers from the state. Those are the startling numbers of child fatalities that KOMO News compiled.
"(I've asked myself) 'Why are they doing this?Is it deliberate?' And I've come to the conclusion, 'oh, amen, it is deliberate.'"
Susan Dreyfus, the new secretary of DSHS, promises both accountability and transparency.
"We have to be accountable," she said. "There is no worse day in this state when a child's not safe in their own home. I mean, it is of urgent importance."
But both Armstrong and Stevens say while they respect Dreyfus' commitment, no one person can handle such a large agency.
"I have reached my limit - my patience - children are dying," Stevens said.
And while both Stevens and Armstrong are Republicans, they're adamant that protecting children isn't partisan. In fact, nearly as many Democrats as Republicans have signed onto Armstrong's bill.
"Somebody's gotta be fighting for these kids," said Armstrong.
But Armstrong is also realistic. January will be just a short legislative session, and the state is facing major budget shortfalls.
So Armstrong plans to use KOMO's investigation to push the issue this session, get other legislators on board and build up steam for 2011.
The state children's administration disputes the problem solvers numbers, saying only 105 children died of abuse or neglect since 2002. The agency claims "any death of a child is tragic" and "they continue to learn from these tragedies."
KOMO News stands by all of the information uncovered during the investigation.