The state has until Nov. 1 to implement an alternative plan to house foster youth.

By Elizabeth Amon / The Imprint
Illustration by Christine Ongjoco

This report is contributed by The Imprint, an independent, nonprofit daily news outlet focused on the nation’s child welfare and youth justice systems.

Washington youth will no longer sleep in cars, offices and hotel rooms while in foster care, under a proposed agreement between children’s lawyers and the Department of Children, Youth, and Families. 

Once signed by a federal judge, the settlement reached June 18 requires the state to create alternative plans to house foster youth by Nov. 1. Provisions to improve their care and treatment — such as adequate nutrition and proper schooling — will go into effect immediately upon signing.

The state ombuds for foster care, Patrick Dowd, was cautiously optimistic about the legal development, saying he is “pleased” many provisions will go into effect immediately. But he warned that it will be “window dressing” if children aren’t placed in appropriate settings with the services they need.

For years, hundreds of Washington foster youth who social workers failed to place in homes or group care have spent nights in government offices and hotel rooms — even social workers’ cars — sites that are ill-equipped for the proper care of traumatized youth separated from their families.

In January, two nonprofit legal organizations and a private law firm filed a class action lawsuit in Seattle’s U.S. District Court on behalf of three foster children, alleging that the practicesrelied upon by the child welfare agency compounded children’s mental health troubles, disrupted their education and destroyed their ability to trust adults — “extinguishing any hope” they have for long-term stability.

The lawsuit, filed Jan. 28, detailed the circumstances of three children in foster care who the state housed in emergency placements like hotels and offices. They are identified in court documents by their initials: D.Y., a 13-year-old who has lived in 30 foster and group homes since he was removed from his mother in 2016 and H.A., a 16-year-old foster youth moved 15 times over five years, including to placements in out-of-state institutions in Idaho, Tennessee and Utah. Sixteen-year-old D.S. entered foster care last year and has not had a stable home since April 2020 — cycling between one-night stays, hotels and state offices.

In their lawsuit, Disability Rights Washington, the California-based National Center for Youth Law and Carney Gillespie Isitt allege that the child welfare department’s policies violate the rights of foster children with disabilities under the U.S. Constitution, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980.

Under the agreement reached Friday before U.S. District Judge Barbara J. Rothstein, the state must tell the court by Sept. 1 how it will stop housing children in hotels, motels and offices. 

In a statement, a spokesperson for the Department of Children, Youth, and Families said the office is “working with our provider community to ensure that we have placement options appropriate for these high-needs youth.” 

Attorneys for the plaintiffs could not be reached by June 22 for this article.

The proposed court order will halt the practice of housing kids in cars, hotels and offices on Nov. 1. From now until then, youth with nowhere suitable to sleep will be cared for under a 13-point list of treatment guidelines. In the interim period, the Department of Children, Youth, and Families must prioritize hotel stays over offices overnights, and children in those emergency foster care placements for more than five nights must be able to keep the same hotel room and be able to leave their belongings there. The agreement also requires that if a child must spend night hours in an office or car — not including transport time — an incident report must be written, and the child’s attorney notified.

In October, The Imprint published the story of one teen, then-16-year-old Espen James, a member of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska. Over six months last year, she spent most nights in temporary overnight housing, including one night in a social worker’s Prius in the parking lot of a government building.

Espen, who is transgender, said in an interview last year she was offered placement in an all-male group home.

“I told them I wouldn’t take it,” she said, “so they made me spend the night in an office parking lot.”

Espen is only one face behind the numbers. The Washington State Office of the Family and Children’s Ombuds reported that 220 foster youth spent 1,863 nights in hotels or office buildings in the fiscal year ending Aug. 1, because the state charged with their care had nowhere better to house them. The watchdog office began tracking the number of nights foster children had to sleep in hotels and offices in 2015, when 72 children spent 120 nights in those settings. As of May, 194 foster youth have spent 1,608 nights in hotels or offices in the 2021 fiscal year.

Dowd — whose ombuds office has produced annual reports detailing the trauma caused by housing children in hotels and offices — said the problem is no simple matter to fix.

“A lot of these youth have very special needs; they need a therapeutic placement,” he said. “If the department comes up with placements that fall short, we’re not gaining any ground.”

In these periods of living virtually homeless in foster care, Espen and other children have reported being given few nutritional options other than fast food or supermarket items. They’ve spent entire days in government offices, with only a phone to distract them, youth and their lawyers report. Under the proposed agreement, the child welfare agency must provide food that meets young people’s dietary needs as well as healthy snacks. It must also transport the children to school or provide space for online school.

In its statement, the Department of Children, Youth, and Families said the negotiations over the underlying merits of the case filed by youth advocates are ongoing. Friday’s initial agreement involves “limited steps the agency will take in a very challenging situation.”

In the past, Department Secretary Ross Hunter has told The Imprint that housing children in offices and hotels is “an egregious problem,” using the word “cruel.” 

The Department has denied having a policy of housing youth in cars. But in addition to The Imprint’s reporting, such troubling experiences have been documented by King5, a local television station. Last month, the station aired an investigation reporting that youth were being kept overnight in cars as punishment for refusing a foster or group home placement.

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