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Settlement in foster youth hotel stays suit commits WA child welfare program to think ‘outside the box’

June 9, 2022 Updated Thu., June 9, 2022 at 6:11 p.m.

By Nina Shapiro Seattle Times

After years of criticism for putting foster kids up in hotels, offices and even cars, the state has reached a settlement in a class-action lawsuit over practices that even the head of the child welfare system has called “a crazy bad idea.”

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

“I’m excited,” said Susan Kas, an attorney with Disability Rights Washington, which brought the lawsuit along with three young people in foster care. “We have an agreement to try some things that are outside the box.”

The state 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 foster families; and a new class of “therapeutic” foster parents. The programs, which have been tried only on a small scale so far by the nonprofit Mockingbird Society in Washington and replicated in other states, offer not just alternative housing options but also ways of better addressing kids’ needs and the reasons why some have been hard to place.

Kas said that brings nontraditional goals to the state’s child welfare system — not just a roof over a child’s head but fostering their recovery from trauma, nurturing family connections and providing other support.

Still, it’s not clear whether the settlement will entirely end the practices under fire.

The new programs rely upon legislative funding, for one thing. If the Legislature does not provide adequate money, the settlement says 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,” Patrick Dowd, director of the state Office of the Family and Children’s Ombuds, said of the settlement, noting the question of funding, possible staffing shortages that have held up programs in the past, and details yet to be hammered out.

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

Dowd has been highly critical of DCYF’s increasing use of hotels and department offices, documented in a series of annual reports. In 2015, 72 foster kids stayed a total of 120 nights in such locations. Last year, 256 youth spent a total of 2,535 nights in hotels and offices.

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

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

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

In contrast, the department has greatly reduced the number of foster youth it sends to institutions outside Washington, prodded by a 2018 Disability Rights Washington report alleging abuse at one for-profit facility in Iowa. There were about 80 foster youth in out-of-state facilities at the time. There are now 12, according to DCYF spokesperson 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 settlement.

In the meantime, the 36-page settlement provides some preliminary details. An “emerging adulthood” program, for instance, will house 16- to 20-year-olds who want to live on their own or in a shared space. Many older teens have been in multiple foster homes already and don’t want yet another, Kas noted.

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

The hub homes are not intended as permanent placements for kids but rather places where they and their families can get mentorship and training while socializing with each other and building a sense of community. They will also have at least two bedrooms for short-term respite care.

Therapeutic foster parents will have “specialized training” that isn’t specified in the settlement.

Dowd, who has called for creating 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 these foster parents, who will be specially licensed, will have some kind of “higher level of qualifications, background and training.”

DCYF’s Gutierrez said there is no exact timeline for implementing the settlement, which also includes a variety of improvements, including to procedures designed to prevent taking kids away from their families in the first place. Such parts of the agreement are already underway, she said, while others will begin in 2023 or 2024.

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