Washington’s child welfare agency has reached a sprawling settlement agreement with legal advocacy groups representing hundreds of children in the state’s care who have been poorly housed, often left to sleep in offices, hotels and social workers’ cars.
Three foster youth identified in court documents as D.S., D.Y, and H.A. — and hundreds of others with mental health or behavioral disabilities — alleged in a 2021 lawsuit that they experienced frequent moves between emergency placements and disrupted education, family ties and medical treatment. This week, after 11 months of negotiation, their attorneys and the state announced a raft of new programs promoting housing stability for foster youth, and a re-organization of the state’s foster care placement system, among other provisions.
If approved by U.S. District Court Judge Barbara Rothstein of Washington’s Western District in Seattle, the agreement released Monday would be overseen by an independent monitor to ensure compliance.
“The commitments we are making today build upon our overarching commitments to safely reduce the number of children in out-of-home care, to strengthen families and communities, and to promote equity,” said Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) Assistant Secretary Steven Grilli, in a joint statement with the plaintiffs.
As reported in The Imprint in late 2020, hundreds of children were spending the night in hotels, offices, emergency foster care homes and at times even social workers’ cars — emergency arrangements that can inflame trauma and instability.
The suit filed in January 2021 alleged the state was failing children by “shuttling children with behavioral health and developmental disabilities from hotels to state offices to other one-night stays, ‘essentially rendering them homeless for extended periods of time,’” according to a press release.
Children without formal placements often had considerable psychiatric, behavioral or developmental conditions, such as the three named plaintiffs in the lawsuit. D.Y., D.S. and H.A. alleged violations of the 14th Amendment, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act, and the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act. They and hundreds of other children were represented by attorneys from the National Center for Youth Law, Disability Rights Washington, Carney Gillespie, Children’s Rights, and Munger, Tolles & Olson.
D.S., a 16-year-old transgender teen and an enrolled member of the Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, spent much of 2020 cycling through one-night stays in child welfare agency offices and hotels, missing school and waiting for mental heath care for “severe psychotic” symptoms and “suicidal ideations.” H.A., a 16-year-old diagnosed with autism, experienced 15 placements in four states over five years. Thirteen-year-old D.Y. said he navigated 50 foster care placements over four years, while living with post-traumatic stress disorder.
In a statement heralding the settlement, Disability Rights attorney Susan Kas said her organization sued because “far too many foster children with disabilities were becoming strangers to their own families and communities of origin due to the failures of traditional child welfare models.”
Children’s Rights Attorney Leecia Welch added “DCYF’s commitments in this settlement are crucial steps towards reimagining the child welfare system to provide for healing, community, and lasting relationships with supportive adults for all children, regardless of their race, gender, or disabilities.”
The state agency has agreed to “take all reasonable steps available” to secure funding from the Legislature to implement the deal, according to the settlement.
In an interview, Welch said that the plaintiffs wouldn’t have settled if they didn’t believe the state agency could obtain the resources necessary to implement the agreement.
“They understand if they can’t fund these reforms, they’ll be right back in court,” Welch said. “We’re hopeful the Legislature will be more willing to look at these outside-the-box strategies that allow children to grow and thrive in the context of families, and also ensure agencies are partnering with children’s biological families.”
The 37-page proposed settlement made public this week lists seven broad goals and nine new policy and program requirements for Washington’s children and families agency. They include new supportive housing programs for older youth, revised licensing standards, and professionally trained therapeutic foster homes for children with developmental disabilities or behavioral health challenges.
The settlement also outlined some broad goals, such as “supporting the potential for every family to experience healing and recovery,” and measures to “combat the institutional and systemic racism and ableism that result in disproportionate separation of families of color and families with disabilities.” Those goals would be achieved in part by restructuring the state’s foster care system to rely on specially-trained “hub” homes that offer respite, mentoring and other supports to nearby families and youth.
A Washington youth advocacy group has developed a similar structure which has been adopted by agencies inside and outside of the state. In an interview, representatives for the Mockingbird Society applauded the bravery of the young litigants.
“When you are day-to-day trying to figure out where you are going to sleep for the night, and is your stuff going to be safe, it consumes your day,” said Hayley Bridwell, a manager with Mockingbird who experienced housing instability as a young adult. “When you are in an unstable situation, you can’t think long-term. Your concern is tonight. Kids need to know that they have multiple people to reach out to, a community that wants to help you.”
Lewis Bossing, senior staff attorney for the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law in Washington, D.C, said the settlement also means the young people will have a greater chance to benefit from therapeutic services.
“It’s really hard to engage a child in services designed to meet their needs if there is housing instability,” Bossing said. “If there is not a stable, welcoming, supportive environment in which children and families can be engaged in services, then you probably aren’t going to do very well in services. Housing is just key.”