Settlement at a hotel for foster kids forces WA’s child protection program to think ‘outside the box’

After years of criticism for placing children in foster care in hotels, offices and even cars, the state has reached a settlement in a class action on practices that even the head of the child welfare system called “crazy bad ideas.”

The rules, submitted for approval this week in federal court, also aims to end the sending of foster kids to group homes in other states and put them through multiple placements. Many of the hundreds of children affected are trauma survivors and have behavioral and developmental disabilities. A disproportionate number of people of color or LGBTQ+.

“I’m thrilled,” said Susan Kas, an attorney for Disability Rights Washington, who filed the lawsuit with three foster kids. “We have an agreement to try things outside the box.”

The state’s Department of Children, Youth and Families is committing to three new programs: housing for older teens who prefer to live independently; hub homes offering support to host families; and a new class of “therapeutic” foster parents. The programs, which have only been tried on a small scale so far by the nonprofit Mockingbird Society in Washington and replicated in other states, not only provide alternative housing options, but also ways to better meet the needs of children and the reasons why some have been difficult to place.

Kas said it brings non-traditional goals to the state’s child welfare system — not just a roof over a child’s head, but helping their recovery from trauma, maintaining family ties and provide other support.

Still, it’s unclear whether the settlement will entirely end the practices under fire.

New programs depend on statutory funding, on the one hand. If the Legislative Assembly does not provide enough money, the regulations state that the parties will go through a dispute resolution process, which seems to leave the outcome up in the air.

“It’s encouraging, but I’ve been encouraged before,” State Director Patrick Dowd Office of the Family and Children’s Ombudsmansaid of the settlement, noting the issue of funding, possible staff shortages that have delayed programs in the past, and details that still need to be worked out.

“The real work is in the implementation,” Dowd said.

Dowd strongly criticized DCYF’s increasing use of hotels and departmental offices, documented in a series of Annual Report. In 2015, 72 foster children spent a total of 120 nights in these places. Last year, 256 young people spent a total of 2,535 nights in hotels and offices.

A single child spent 229 nights in a hotel or office last year. Some children also slept in state-owned cars, Dowd wrote, confirming a KING report 5.

“In some cases, workers allegedly used tactics to make staying in the car uncomfortable, such as rolling down the windows when it was cold, to convince a youth to accept a placement,” Dowd wrote.

DCYF Secretary Ross Hunter has long said he wants to end repeat hotel stays, noting in 2019 that such placements are a “crazy bad idea”. But the problem has only gotten worse, exacerbated by a lesser willingness of foster parents to foster children during the pandemic.

In contrast, the department has dramatically reduced the number of adoptive youth it sends to institutions outside of Washington, prompted by a 2018 Disability Rights Washington report alleging abuse at a for-profit Iowa facility. There were approximately 80 youth in foster care at out-of-state facilities at the time. There are now 12, according to DCYF spokeswoman Nancy Gutierrez.

Within 90 days, the agency will draft a plan for carrying out its new programs, informed by feedback from children, families and others, according to the regulations.

In the meantime, the 36-page settlement provides some preliminary details. An “emerging adult” program, for example, will welcome young people aged 16 to 20 who wish to live alone or in a shared space. Many older teens have already been in multiple foster homes and don’t want another one yet, Kas noted.

Staff, not necessarily onsite, will be available around the clock to provide a variety of services, including transportation, crisis intervention and independent living skills training.

Central houses are not intended as permanent placements for children, but rather as places where they and their families can get mentorship and training while socializing with each other and creating a sense of community. community. They will also have at least two rooms for short-term respite care.

Therapeutic foster parents will have “specialty training” which is not specified in the regulations.

Dowd, who called for the creation of this class of professionalized foster parents, said they would ideally have a master’s degree in social work.

“I don’t know if that’s realistic,” Dowd said. But he envisions that these foster parents, who will be specially approved, will have some kind of “higher level of qualifications, background and training”.

DCYF’s Gutierrez said there was no specific timeline for implementing the settlement, which also includes a variety of improvements, including procedures designed to prevent children from being taken away from their homes in the first place. family. Those parts of the deal are already underway, she said, while others will begin in 2023 or 2024.

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