Foster care youth in the Spokane region stayed at hotels 40 times in November, when caseworkers could not find them places to stay.
In a region that typically has a low number of emergency placements at hotels, the relatively high number of those placements last month is one sign of a larger trend: the foster care system is serving children with intensifying needs and providing limited options for the workers who care for them.
Throughout Washington state, children in the custody of the Department of Children, Youth and Families were placed in hotels or foster homes in emergency single-night placements at higher rates in 2019 than any year since 2014, when the Office of the Family and Children’s Ombuds began keeping track.
The 2019 annual report from the ombuds includes DCYF workers who described having to use “placement exceptions” more often, though not due to a lack of foster homes.
“They assert that placement exceptions continue because of major changes in the population that DCYF serves, specifically an increase in youth with serious mental health concerns, youth involved with the juvenile justice system, and youth who suffer from major developmental disabilities,” the 2019 annual report says.
Often, children entering the state’s foster care system are dealing with myriad issues that are interrelated and impacted by the trauma of abuse and neglect if it is present, said Patrick Dowd, director of the ombuds office.
“So, you might have a child that’s on the autism spectrum and then you add trauma to that by abuse or neglect from a parent, further trauma by the child welfare system, placement disruptions and lack of stability in a school setting, and all of those kinds of the instances,” Dowd said. “All of those adverse experiences on the child, I think, compound themselves.”
DCYF workers struggle to find placements for children with elevated developmental, behavioral or mental health needs, Dowd’s team found. If a foster family does not think they can take a child, they do not have to, and the report details caseworkers working until 9 p.m. some nights to find a place for children, using hotels as a last resort.
Region 1, which includes Spokane, usually averages less than three hotel stays per month, Debra Johnson with DCYF said. Statewide, all regions in the foster care system are serving kids with higher needs, the report says.
Angela Getz, director of youth services at YFA Connections, said their crisis residential center serves a lot of youth who are in conflict in foster homes or adoptive families. The crisis residential center is for shorter-term stays, but kids can be extended as a part of the Hope Program and stay for up to 75 days with extensions. Youth who are 12 to 18 years old can stay at YFA Connections.
While the YFA crisis center will take youth with developmental disabilities or mental health diagnoses, Getz said the facility does not specialize in mental health care, and the shortage of long-term inpatient beds for youth in the state disproportionately impacts Eastern Washington. There is one publicly funded children’s long-term inpatient facility east of the Cascades, which has 16 beds.
“We need places like the CRC that are funded with highly trained behavioral health staff that aren’t a psychiatric hospital, like a group home,” Getz said.
Dowd agreed, saying that while inpatient stabilization care for youth needing emergent mental health care is available, the step-down facilities and long-term care options are lacking.
In essence, the state’s foster care system is acting as a “service provider of last resort,” the ombuds report says. Statewide, families are calling the agency not with allegations of abuse or neglect, but because they are at their wit’s end and need help.
“The parent is coming to the department and saying, ‘Help me, put my child in a group home or therapeutic foster care, because this behavior is beyond my ability to meet this child’s needs,’ ” Dowd said. “And DCYF is at a loss. (They) were built to respond to families where there’s abuse and neglect, and there’s not abuse and neglect, so what do we do?”
This story rings true with community advocates in Spokane too.
Darci Ladwig, assistant coordinator with the ARC of Spokane, said they receive calls from families looking for support in similar situations. For youth with Developmental Disabilities Administration benefits, there are some programs and group homes in the region.
Families taking care of children with developmental disabilities who are not connected to DDA services might not know what resources are out there, however. As Ladwig points out, “Parents don’t know what they don’t know.”
Once a youth receiving DDA services enters the foster care system, they no longer receive paid services from DDA, a Developmental Disabilities Ombuds report published this fall says. But a DDA case manager can continue to support the youth and coordinate services.
The DDA ombuds suggests coordinating services between DDA and the foster care system or pulling all stakeholders together for meetings, like Texas agencies do. Or even before DCYF gets involved, prevention services could be accessed.
“If people had had the right supports early on, so much of that would be prevented,” Ladwig said. “If people have the right tools to keep their kid at home, most of them would do it.”
At the Vanessa Behan Crisis Nursery, Amy Knapton Vega said they are working to prevent families from having to call DCYF in the first place, acknowledging that they do take emergent placements from the state sometimes. The nursery houses not only infants but also children up to 7 years old, although the goal Vega said is to eventually expand the range of services to children up to age 12, as well as the number of beds, in the new year.
“How can we help bridge that gap when a child is leaving us and going into a foster care system? It’s about lessening the trauma on the child,” she said.
Vega, the nursery’s executive director, said keeping what’s best for the child at the forefront of every decision is the most important piece of the work the nursery does.
“Instead of working in silos, it’s how do we partner together?” she said. “We do a piece of it, and someone else does a piece of it. It shouldn’t be the child’s responsibility to figure that out.”
The state’s foster care system is stretched in both ways, and Dowd noted complaints surrounding caseworker conduct have gone up in the past few years.
“That is largely driven by turnover within the workforce,” Dowd said.
In the Spokane region, Dowd’s office received 93 complaints in 2019, but only one of those claims was substantiated. Many substantiated complaints in the report show staff turnover can lead to delayed referrals or children staying in unlicensed homes for extended periods of time.
For DCYF staff assigned to supervise children in hotel stays, long nights providing direct supervision could take a toll.
“If they are sent to supervise kids in a hotel and see how disruptive it is for the children, they may walk away thinking, ‘I don’t want to be a part of this,’ ” Dowd said.
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