The number of nights that hundreds of Washington’s foster youth are left essentially homeless has skyrocketed in the last year to 1,863.
For yet another year, the Ombuds office, which oversees the Department of Children, Youth and Families has released an annual report condemning the state agency for the continuing rise of “placement exceptions” that leave children sleeping in hotels, on cots in government buildings, and at times even in social workers’ cars.
But in a remarkable shift, the report this year urges officials to change state policies ensuring that kids’ treatment is more “humane.”
“There isn’t a solution on the horizon, so we want to see what else can we do to make this less traumatizing,” said Patrick Dowd, director of the independent state agency, the Office of the Family and Children’s Ombuds. “We need to make a bad situation a little better.”
In its report, released Dec. 7, the Ombuds called for the department to “normalize hotel stays to provide a more stabilizing and supportive environment for youth.” The changes would address child welfare advocates’ concerns about gaps in education, inadequate access to nutritious food and the emotional disturbance of such transient housing.
In a sign of how entrenched the problem has become amid the coronavirus pandemic, the Ombuds’ recommendations are so basic they simply request that children spend more than one successive night at a particular hotel or county office. That is preferable, Dowd’s report states, to the children having to gather and carry all their belongings with them each day as social workers shuttle them from place to place.
The Ombuds director also wants the state to stock healthy food in the kitchens at the regional offices where children sleep and to dedicate space for them to do homework. Finally, the director wants the agency to make sure that no children sleep in cars — even if they are in transit for most of the night.
In October, The Imprint reported the story of one such teen, Espen James, who is transgender and a member of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska. At the time of the report, she’d spent most nights since April in temporary overnight housing including one night in a social worker’s Prius in the parking lot of a government building. Her attorney described 16-year-old Espen’s treatment in foster care as “heartbreaking.”
Secretary Ross Hunter, the head of the department overseeing foster youth, released a statement after the recent Ombuds report was published, saying that for several years the office “rightfully excoriated” his agency about the growing problem of hotel and office stays. Hunter added that he shares the concern and “it has our full attention.”
The Ombuds office began tracking the number of hotel and office stays in 2015, when 72 children spent only 120 nights. This year, 220 children, disproportionately youth of color, spent 1,863 overnights in those settings. Teenagers, mostly boys, between ages 15 and 17 account for 43% of those spending the nights in hotels. The report described one child left in this limbo for more than four months — 126 nights.
Child welfare experts say a small group of foster youth who are difficult to place because they have complex care needs, including mental health or behavioral problems, are those most likely to end up sleeping in hotels and offices. This year, two dozen young people spent 20 or more nights in hotels or in the regional offices of the Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF).
All told, “43 children spent a combined total of 1,395 nights in hotels or DCYF offices, making up approximately 75% of placement exceptions,” according to the Ombuds’ report.
In his public statement, Secretary Hunter said his agency can’t appropriately house these youth because of funding shortfalls. But he said some improvements have been made or are imminent. Funding from the Legislature recently paid for 27 additional beds in treatment facilities. The state also raised providers’ pay to help them keep their centers afloat.
By spring, 15 beds in therapeutic foster homes — where children receive wraparound care and additional mental health care — will also be newly available, Hunter said. The child welfare agency will release more details about practice changes later this month.
According to the Ombuds’ report, the shortage of suitable placements has been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, which the office’s most recent numbers show. In October, foster children spent 237 nights in hotels and offices compared to 56 at the same time last year.
In King County, 30% of foster homes have stopped accepting children because of concerns about the coronavirus, according to the report. Many youth have a history of running away from placements, for example, which increases the risk of exposure to families or facilities — and can be worrisome for caregivers.
Mike Canfield, executive director of the Foster Parent Alliance of Washington State, pointed out that many foster parents are older and at greater risk. Since foster youth also frequently have medical risks, it can be harder to bring additional children into a home, particularly those who may have been in and out of hotels and more likely to be infectious. “We suggest that DCYF get better at getting kids tested to assure foster families they are COVID-free,” Canfield wrote in an email.
In an email to The Imprint, Communications Director Debra Johnson confirmed that “Secretary Hunter has deep concerns about normalizing hotel and office stays allowing it to become a permanent state.”
In addition to being harmful for the foster youth, overnight placements are costly to taxpayers and draining on the department’s budget. The majority of the 1,561 nights were spent in hotels where youth were supervised by caseworkers and security guards. Each night’s price tag can amount to as much as $2,100, according to the state’s most recent calculation.
The Ombuds office reports that although it had discussed its recommendations for making the hotel and office stays more comfortable for the children, the child welfare agency has routinely insisted the accommodations are not appropriate placement for youth, so they shouldn’t spend resources on “legitimizing or entrenching” them.
Tara Urs, a lawyer who represents children and families at the King County Department of Public Defense, said her office has had little success in court fighting to get child clients some of the basic comforts the Ombuds report suggests, like successive nights in a hotel. So, Urs said in an interview, she’s pleased to see the Ombuds’ recommendations to at least minimize the harm, while solutions are being sought.
“We have to recognize that we are harming children on our watch,” she said. “There are common-sense practical things we can do to make the experience of being without a placement less damaging.”