In a lawsuit filed this week in federal court, advocates say Washington state’s practice of placing foster youth in hotels and government offices overnight, housing them in group homes, and sending them out of state has left hundreds of children with behavioral health and developmental disabilities essentially homeless.
The suit, filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Seattle by a private law firm and two nonprofits, alleges that the actions of the state’s Department of Children, Youth and Families and its secretary, Ross Hunter, have compounded children’s mental health troubles, disrupted their education and destroyed their ability to trust adults — “extinguishing any hope” they have for long-term stability.
“Children with acute needs, those are the children the department is failing,” Susan Kas, an attorney with Disability Rights Washington, said in an interview with The Imprint. Kas’ nonprofit legal center was joined in the suit by the California-based National Center for Youth Law and Carney Gillespie Isitt.
In an email and a video statement he released Friday, Hunter declined to comment on the lawsuit because the department has not yet reviewed it. But he concurred that the unorthodox housing arrangements for children in the agency’s care amount to “an egregious problem.”
In the past Hunter’s office has gone so far as to call hotel stays “cruel.” In his statement posted to YouTube, he said inadequate funding for children’s complex needs is to blame, issues that — despite attempts to resolve the problem — “can only be solved through investments by the state.”
The lawsuit filed this week is a class action on behalf of three plaintiffs and hundreds who have had similar experiences. It alleges that the state — rather than working to preserve and reunify families and ensuring children are safe from abuse and neglect — is instead “re-traumatizing children” because of inadequate housing.
The court filing says the state’s reliance on government offices, hotels, single-night stays in foster homes and stints in out-of-state facilities amounts to a “default system for warehousing children with disabilities.”
The suit describes three children’s experiences, identifying them by initials. D.Y. is a 13-year-old who has lived in 30 different foster and group homes since he was removed from his mother in 2016. A 16-year-old, H.A., has had 15 foster care placements, including at out-of-state institutions in Idaho, Tennessee and Utah during five years in state custody. The third child, D.C., is a 16-year-old who entered foster care last year and has not had stable placement since April 2020 — cycling between one-night stays in hotels and state offices.
In October, The Imprint reported on the skyrocketing number of nights — reaching as high as 1,863 last year — that young people in Washington state spent in hotels or Department of Children, Youth and Families’ regional offices. Children have even been made to sleep in county cars, according to youth and their attorneys.
The Imprint article featured the story of one teen, 16-year-old Espen James, who is transgender and a member of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska. Over six months last year, she spent most nights in temporary overnight housing, including one night in a social worker’s Prius in the parking lot of a government building.
The D.S. v. DCYF lawsuit filed Thursday alleges that the child welfare department’s policies violate the rights of foster children with disabilities under the U.S. Constitution, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980.
State figures show the alleged violations have gone on for years. Washington’s Office of the Family and Children’s Ombuds began tracking the number of nights foster children had to sleep in hotels and offices in 2015, when 72 children spent 120 nights in those settings. This year, 220 children slept in hotels and offices 1,863 times.
The children denied beds in family homes or group care facilities are disproportionately people of color. Last year, 9% of children in Washington’s foster care system were Black, yet they made up 16% of those spending the night in offices or hotels.
In its report last year, the ombuds office found that the emergency accommodations endanger children. Interviews with regional administrators revealed the youth involved were provided unhealthy diets, mostly of fast food, and experienced educational disruptions. The sleeping arrangements also undermined the young people’s sense of self-worth, the ombuds office concluded, by making them feel unwanted and unlovable.
Child welfare experts told The Imprint last year that those most likely to end up sleeping in these “exceptional placements” have complex mental and behavioral health needs. In the report spanning from September 2019 to August 2020, two dozen young people slept 20 or more nights in hotels or offices.
After the Ombuds’ report was published last year, Secretary Hunter released a statement saying that the watchdog office had “rightfully excoriated” his agency about the growing problem of hotel and office stays. Hunter added that the issue “has our full attention.”
To address the problem, according to testimony submitted to a legislative committee, the department has added 27 beds in treatment facilities since July, and intends to add 20 more by March.
Yet the state is now on track to break last year’s dismal record. In the first four months of this reporting year, from September through December, young people slept in hotels and offices 729 times. In October alone, the number was quadruple that of last year.
Although the pandemic has made it even more challenging to find safe foster homes, attorney Kas said Washington’s problem lies with the Department of Children Youth and Families’ failure to find lasting, permanent homes. “COVID or not,” she said, “this problem existed before and will continue to exist unless something changes.”
According to the advocates’ lawsuit, systemwide improvements are needed, including more focus on family reunification, a greater number of appropriate placement options and more individualized handling of children’s needs.
The state’s approach to date — investing in additional treatment beds — might mitigate the problem but won’t get to its root cause, Kas said: “The problem is deeper than the ‘exceptional stays.’ The real cause of this is, in our view, a failure of the department to invest in supports and resources for families.”