‘These are the state’s kids. We need to care for them,’ state lawmaker responds.
Since early April, 16-year-old Espen James has spent most nights in Washington’s foster care system being shuttled from a government office by day to hotels by night. Over one long night she never left a Prius, parked with its lights on in the lot outside the Department of Social and Health Services in Bellevue, with a social worker at her side. She was still awake when the sun came up.
“The whole night, she had to keep starting the car so the battery wouldn’t die,” Espen said of her social worker. “I didn’t sleep all night.”
In Washington state these days, the frequency of these disturbing sleeping arrangements for foster youth have hit a record high: Espen is only one face behind the numbers revealed by the Washington State Office of the Family and Children’s Ombuds. In the fiscal year ending Aug. 1, 220 foster youth spent 1,863 nights in hotels or office buildings because the state charged with their care had nowhere better to house them.
The current tallies do not include youth who were sent to equally destablizing overnight setups, like a single night in an emergency foster home, or those like Espen, who slept in the car with a social worker.
The cost to taxpayers of these haphazard arrangements for kids who have been removed from their families’ homes for better protection can amount to more than $2,000 a night.
Observers from all sides of the child welfare system agree the number of times these makeshift arrangements are relied upon is indefensible. In an interview with The Imprint, even Secretary Ross Hunter – the head of Washington’s Department of Children, Youth and Families – called the increase in hotel and office stays “egregious,” and single emergency overnights in foster homes “cruel.”
Yet the department says these emergency measures are unavoidable – particularly given the dangers during the pandemic. They claim at times there is simply nowhere but offices and hotels to house these children – who include a core group with behavioral, learning or mental health issues – and say there are too few facilities or foster homes equipped and trained to care for them. Some of the youth are transitioning from drug or mental health treatment facilities or from juvenile lockups without a follow-up plan in place, and the child welfare department has become the agency of last resort.
In a recent interview with her lawyer by her side, Espen, who is transgender and a member of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, asked to be identified by her chosen name for this story.
She first entered the child welfare system as a toddler because of her parents’ drug problems, later moving in with an aunt and uncle. In April, she began a treacherous journey through multiple placements in the foster care system that involved two crisis shelters – one for a month in King County and one for a week in Yakima – and a stay at a department office set up as a quarantine center after she became exposed to COVID-19 at one of the facilities. Since the middle of May, she has been mostly in hotels, except for a couple of weekend respites at emergency foster care homes and a brief shelter stay.
According to the Office of the Family and Children’s Ombuds, Espen appears to be one of two dozen youth who over the course of a year spent 20 or more nights in “placement exceptions,” defined by the department as stays in unlicensed facilities that require specific authorization. Interviews with child welfare professionals show a small, but as-yet undefined number of youth have slept in cars with social workers.
Lauren Johansen, Espen’s lawyer who represents kids and parents for the King County Department of Public Defense, said she and her colleagues have seen this treatment one too many times. And when you know the youth involved, she said, the numbers are all the more heartbreaking.
“Espen is one of the most engaging, fun – fun to be around people. She is a dream to work with, hilarious and artistic,” Johansen said. “I should be worrying about whether she has access to an SAT course, not where she’s going to sleep.”
According to the state ombuds office, the total number of children involved in overnights in hotels and offices is down this year, dropping from 282 in 2019 to 220 in the most recent year ending Aug. 31. But the 1,863 hotel and office stays in 2020 is more than double the number in 2017, and 349 more overnight stays than last year.
Of the 220 foster children who slept in hotels and offices this year, just 88 spent only one night in those settings. Sixty-nine of the young people spent more than six nights in a hotel or office, the majority in the greater Seattle area.
In July, Espen said she was offered a bed at an all-male group home in Marysville, which she refused.
Espen and her lawyer said in interviews that in previous experiences at shelters, she suffered homophobic remarks and she worried about living as a transgender woman in an all-male facility. That’s when she ended up in the car all night.
“They said that’s the only option,” Espen recalled. “I told them I wouldn’t take it, so they made me spend the night in an office parking lot.”
The child welfare department did not respond to specific questions from The Imprint about foster youth sleeping in cars under the state’s watch, but in an email described situations where youth “refuse a placement when the worker arrives at the home or facility that accepted the youth.” In those cases, the statement went on, social workers stay in their cars with the youth until they agree or, “If not, the worker must make another plan, which may involve going to a hotel.”
Patrick Dowd, director of the Office of the Family and Children’s Ombuds, said he has heard of the practice.
“We have received reports – not many – but we have received reports of children staying in cars,” the director ombuds said in an interview. Dowd said he plans to include information on foster youth sleeping in cars in his upcoming annual report, to be published in December.
In the meantime, those connected to the child welfare system agree that for a state agency that has removed children from their homes due to safety concerns and taken over custody rights, it is indefensible to then treat them as if they were homeless. Under federal definitions outlined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, people sleeping in cars are to be considered homeless because cars are “not designed for or ordinarily used as a regular sleeping accommodation.”
“The damage that youth are experiencing with these multiple stays and without a stable, consistent support system is just devastating,” said Ruth Kagi, a former state legislator who serves as co-chair of an oversight board monitoring the child welfare agency. Kagi described such slapdash housing in hotels and offices as “increasing the traumatization and the instability in children’s lives.”
The ombuds’ report last year goes even further, saying the emergency accommodations are actually endangering children. Based on interviews with regional administrators, the report described youth provided unhealthy diets, mostly of fast food, and experiencing disruptions in school attendance and enrollment. The arrangements also undermined the young people’s sense of self-worth, the ombuds office concluded, by making them feel unwanted and unlovable.
There are also physical safety concerns. In what are known as placement exceptions, “youth commit assaultive crimes towards staff and one another,” the 2019 ombuds report stated, sourcing the administrators. The report also cites allegations of youth sexually assaulting one another, engaging in self-harm and making suicidal statements, gestures and attempts.
Espen’s lawyer, Johansen, said she’s filed an unusual seven emergency motions because of failings on the part of the Department of Children, Youth and Families to support her client’s needs, five of which went to a full hearing.
“Espen is being treated so poorly on every front: medical, psychiatric, housing, and family connections,” she said. Her motions included Espen missing appointments at Seattle’s Children’s Gender Clinic, not being able to access medication and not getting proper food. In the latter motion, she asked staff to take Espen, who is a vegetarian, to a grocery store rather than to McDonald’s.
The department declined to comment on Espen’s case or any specific cases, citing confidentiality concerns. But a spokesperson stated in an email “any time a child has dietary needs, those will be met.” The department also said “the cultural needs of children in care” are always considered when foster parents are being sought, and that includes “families who can serve LGBTQ+ children and youth.”
As a person of color and a transgender youth, Espen is particularly vulnerable to the most troublesome outcomes in foster care.
The ombuds data show that a disproportionate number of youth of color, particularly Black children, spend the night in hotels or offices. This year, 9% of children in state care were Black while they were 16% of those spending the night in offices or hotels. The report doesn’t include a break-out for LGBTQ youth, though Dowd plans to add them next year. Washington state does not have statistics on the number of LGBTQ youth in foster care, but national studies show they are overrepresented, including a 2019 study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics that found 30% of foster youth nationally identified as LGBTQ and 5% specifically as transgender.
Jason Gortney, the interim CEO of Amara, a nonprofit that works with foster children and families, said the problem of racial disproportionality in the hotel and office stay statistics reflects the overrepresentation of children of color in the child welfare system, both in Washington and nationally. In Washington state, Black children are twice as likely, and Indigenous children are three times as likely to be placed in foster care as white children, according to Amara’s statistics.
“Poverty and systemic racism are continuing to drive families into the child welfare system,” Gortney said. “Let’s solve this hotel stay problem and let’s remember how we got here in the first place.”
In addition to being harmful for youth, overnight placements are costly to taxpayers and draining to the department’s budget. Each night’s price tag can amount to as much as $2,100 a night, according to a 2017 estimate by the child welfare department, the most recent calculation available.
The cost can include not only the price of a hotel, but social workers’ salary and sometimes security staff, plus overtime pay. Espen, for example, said she’s experienced nights in hotels with no other children, and some with up to six foster youth in two hotel rooms. During those nights, she said, some youth slept in beds and some on cots brought into the rooms.
Cots are also brought in when foster youth have to sleep in county offices. Ombuds Dowd said typically the makeshift accommodations are set up in visitation rooms.
Last year, his office reported a total of six nights in office stays. This year, that number has ballooned to 284.
Child welfare officials say the increase may be due to a heightened need for bed space because of coronavirus exposure concerns.
“It’s not necessarily that the youth tested positive,” Dowd said. “It might be a situation where the youth disrupted or ran away from a foster home and when located, the department is not sure where the youth has been or what they have been exposed to.”
Johansen, Espen’s lawyer, has represented roughly 100 youth over the last six years. She said Espen is the one who has spent the longest period with no placement in a stable foster care situation – a stretch of nearly six months.
She acknowledged that Espen may be hard to place because she has had behavioral issues, but even so, she doesn’t think that excuses the failure to find her a home. “She has a voice and will tell people what she does and does not want to happen,” she said. “Some people take that as defiance. I don’t see it as defiance. I see a young person advocating for herself. This is her one life.”
Officials and legislators say the lack of an appropriate number of beds at specialized facilities to house young people whose trauma results in challenging behaviors stems from budget cuts that began during the 2008 recession, and have continued since then.
This year, the Legislature allocated an additional $35 million for emergency beds for foster youth with behavioral health needs and therapeutic support, as well as rate increases for some facilities providing specialized care. But that money only became available on July 1.
Hunter said his department has improved transition plans for youth leaving institutions, increased oversight of placement exceptions, and begun tracking single overnight stays with foster families. Additional beds are also being sought, including with relatives. “It’s a complex problem,” Hunter said, “I have a lot of irons in the fire trying to fix it.”
Most people agree that more money is what’s needed to reduce reliance on hotels and offices, which will not be easy to come by during the recession. “Post-COVID, increases are going to be hard,” said state Rep. Tana Senn (D) who is also a co-chair of the oversight board monitoring the child welfare agency. But she added more investment must be made: “These are the state’s kids. We need to care for them.”
Espen, meanwhile, is making the best of a bad situation. She goes to school online, works at a fast food restaurant in Renton, and she’s been finding mentors to help with her dream of doing something related to fashion design, music, dance and social change.
But like any child, she’d like to be in a supportive family setting. “I want to go to a foster home,” she said, “preferably with no children so it’s easier – one that can provide gender-affirming care and is informed about how trauma works.”
Have you slept in cars, offices or hotels during your time in the child welfare system, or do you know of any foster youth who have? If so, please contact The Imprint at: [email protected].