The prosperity in Seattle that followed the 2008 Great Recession led to record home sales along Lake Washington and new Teslas on the roads, but the dwindling investments in housing the state’s most vulnerable foster youth are now leaving hundreds essentially homeless in the state’s care.
Funding to ensure these youth have safe homes has been skimpy in contrast with the need — everyone from lawmakers to service providers agree — leading to a dearth of therapeutic beds. The problem is most acute in the western part of the state, a trend exacerbated by shifting philosophies about child welfare, a scarcity of available foster families, and tension between the state and private providers.
“Underfunding child welfare goes back many years, but the $50 million reduction in the state’s foster care budget in 2008 was a devastating cut that has never been fully restored,” said Dee Wilson, a child welfare trainer and former regional administrator in the state’s child welfare system.
There are currently 7,557 Washington children in out-of-home care. The state puts the most difficult-to-place youth, approximately 240, in facilities with behavioral rehabilitation services, but they cannot accommodate the need.
As reported in The Imprint last month, as a result, hundreds of children are left spending the night in hotels, offices, emergency foster care homes that mimic a night in a hotel and even social workers’ cars — emergency arrangements that can inflame trauma and instability already ever-present in their lives. If this September’s statistics are any indication, the problem is only getting worse. State figures show foster youth overnights in hotels and offices more than doubled compared with last year at the same time.
Advocates say the children most likely to end up sleeping in hotels and offices are those struggling with psychiatric, behavioral and developmental needs. In the year ending Aug. 31, of the 220 children who spent the night in a hotel or office, 88 spent only one night, while 69 spent six or more nights, according to the Washington State Office of the Family and Children’s Ombuds.
“We have a small number of children who generate an enormous number of stays,” said Department of Children, Youth and Families Secretary Ross Hunter in an interview last month. “We want to have qualified treatment facilities and we don’t have enough.”
The troubling trend of foster youth sleeping in slapdash housing is not unique to Washington state. In Washington, D.C., 31 foster children spent the night at the child welfare agency offices between April and November of last year because social workers couldn’t find homes for them. And in Texas, last year 678 children did not have a home for at least two nights, sleeping in state offices, hotels and other temporary housing.
Ruth Kagi, a former Washington state legislator and co-chair of the board that oversees the department, said the dwindling of therapeutic care and group homes dates back at least 30 years, when research showed that placing youth in more family-like settings had a considerably better outcome.
“That approach, combined with the 2008 recession cuts, and reduced referrals by the state due to fiscal constraints, meant that many more group homes closed as rates were reduced or frozen,” Kagi said.
According to the Washington Association for Children & Families, more than 170 facility beds vanished in the state from 2009 to 2017 at 11 locations. In the last year, at least 44 additional beds in Seattle at two facilities that contracted with the state are also no longer available.
Washington’s cuts in child welfare funding that led to the reduction in group and therapeutic homes dovetailed with a local and national shift in attitudes about the best practices for housing foster youth. Driven by a growing body of research and continued calls by advocates, in 2018, Congress passed the Family First Prevention Services Act, which incentivized states to limit group care.
Washington has one of the lowest congregate care rates in the country — a fact the state is proud of — but which has, in part, led to the emergency housing crisis, those involved said. In addition to the hotel and office overnights, the state sent youth they couldn’t put in placement to out-of-state facilities, some as far away as Florida. Following revelations and public outcry over some agencies’ poor safety records, most have now been brought back and are being kept closer to their homes and communities.
Both the out-of-state option and the hotel overnights, which cost roughly $2,100 per night according to the department, are far more expensive than a bed in a therapeutic facility.
Recognizing the problem, the Legislature allocated an additional $35 million for more emergency beds at facilities for foster youth with behavioral and therapeutic health needs, as well as rate increases for some facilities providing specialized care.
But that money only became available on July 1, and while the process of implementing change is slow — and slowed further by the coronavirus — Secretary Hunter said in a public meeting last week that at least 22 new beds now have been added, as well as new regulations so that upper management is aware and involved in the cases of kids who have more than four temporary overnight placements.
Even so, the problem does not appear likely to be fixed quickly, and the investment is too small to match the scope of the problem, advocates say. Last month, foster youth spent 183 nights in hotels and offices compared to 78 nights in September 2019. Ombuds Dowd said he believes, from looking at the case reports, that the increase last month is a result of circumstances brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
Even legislators don’t see this year’s financial infusion as enough to make up for years of underfunding. State Rep. Tana Senn (D), co-chair of the oversight board monitoring the child welfare agency, said more money is needed. “We need more caseworkers — their caseloads are way too high — we need more mental health treatment options,” she said in an interview last month.
The statistics on hotel and office nights confirm that they are concentrated in the Seattle metro area. King County logged 900 of those 1,863 nights, or nearly half the statewide total.
Last fall, Ryther, a respected Seattle-based nonprofit facility that housed youth with extreme trauma, severed its contract with the state, displacing 26 foster children. Ryther’s CEO, Karen Brady, said the state’s rates were simply too low, and years of underfunding had led to a million-dollar budget gap.
They also did not account for geography. Although Seattle has a minimum wage of $15 an hour, while most of the rest of Washington has a minimum wage of $13 an hour, Brady said the state had “no appetite to manage that.” As a result, she added, “If we accepted the rate they offered, we were going to bankrupt our organization.”
While the department’s long-term goal is to reduce the number of kids in foster care and to place more children with relatives or people familiar with them, which it’s hoping to do by reducing the number of crimes that would mandatorily exclude willing relatives from being eligible for kinship placements, there still aren’t enough foster homes. Mike Canfield, the executive director of the Foster Parents Association of Washington State, said that many foster families are looking to adopt a baby or a specific kid and are unprepared to take on a teenager who may have oppositional or behavioral problems, which dramatically reduces the 5,037 licensed foster homes that are available to youth with a variety of needs.
Canfield also said fewer people are willing to become foster parents because of restrictions on their decision-making and rules involving their foster kids that hobble their ability to adequately parent. His organization, like the ombuds and other groups, has been a proponent of professionalizing foster care for 20 years, a move the Legislature made years ago and then rescinded because of budget cuts. Even with professionalizing foster parents, he said it will be a challenge because “the state and foster parents need to team much better than they do.”
That sentiment is one a number of child welfare advocates echoed. They said the current administration needs to truly partner with the service providers to resolve the problems, including through a systemic look at how kids are being placed and how best to maximize those placements.e
Former state lawmaker Kagi notes said under an earlier administration, she had to pass a law to get administrators to simply meet with foster parents. This lack of communication was part of the reason the Department of Children, Youth and Families, a new cabinet-level department, was created in 2017. She credited the department with making progress in collaboration but noted that it “takes time for the culture to change.”
In an email, a spokesperson described the department’s meetings with “community partners, stakeholder and advisory groups,” and noted officials work “diligently to model the agency’s value of inclusion.”
Better cooperation and a louder voice from those with non-governmental interests may be particularly critical given the current pandemic-induced budget crunch Washington state is now facing and will face again next year. “Behind the scenes advocacy has not been effective,” said former administrator Wilson, author of the “Sounding Board,” a child welfare blog. “Policymakers have shown by years of inaction that they will not do the right thing for foster youth without strong public pressure.”