It’s the law: Wilson fentanyl bill prioritizes child safety, family unity

OLYMPIA — Legislation signed into law today by Gov. Jay Inslee addresses the growing lethal risks to children from synthetic opioids by clarifying state statutes on emergency child removal and emphasizing the importance of not removing children from their homes and families except to protect them from imminent physical harm.

“We have a lot of people trying their best to help children in complex situations, but our existing guidelines leave room for all kinds of interpretations,” said Sen. Claire Wilson (D-Auburn), sponsor of SB 6109. “Clearer definitions will lead to more consistent and positive decision-making on behalf of children at risk.”

Wilson said the need for her bill was driven by an alarming increase in child fatalities in recent years, the growing misuse of synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, and the lack of services for those in need of treatment for addiction. The bill was amended multiple times to satisfy concerns raised by lawmakers and advocates regarding appropriate training for court officials and to better address the most serious threats to children’s health – whether in the form of physical harm or from lasting emotional and psychological damage caused by being removed from their family.

“The cure shouldn’t be worse than the disease,” Wilson said. “There are all kinds of things we can do to ensure a child’s safety, and while removing a child from a family is one of them, it’s an option that should used only as a last resort.”

Wilson said SB 6109 does not change legal standards around child removal but adds clarity to improve consistency in their interpretation in courts, by law enforcement, in hospitals and in other venues where child safety is a consideration.

To that end, the legislation:

  • emphasizes the importance of keeping families intact to promote child health and development;
  • clarifies state guidelines to protect children when there is reasonable belief the child is in imminent danger of harm from abuse or neglect, including when high-potency synthetic opioids may result in imminent physical harm; and
  • helps courts and other actors like law enforcement and hospitals weigh the lethality posed by high-potency synthetic opioids along with public health guidance in evaluating the need for removal.

SB 6109 also directs the state Department of Health to collaborate with the state Department of Children, Youth & Families, and the state’s poison information centers in convening a work group to develop additional public health information on child exposure to synthetic opioids for welfare workers, juvenile courts, and families.

In addition to improving guidelines to protect children, the bill promotes family health by increasing the availability of treatment and additional supports and services for families with children dealing with opioid disorders.

“It isn’t either/or, it’s both,” Wilson said, citing the interrelated concerns. “If all we do is solve part of the problem, we don’t really solve the problem.”