Skyler’s last memory of his biological mother was on a winter day around Christmas.

A foster parent took him to an ice-skating rink to see his mother and two biological sisters, he said. “Last Christmas” pulsed in the background. He was around 3.

Four rough years later, a new foster mom named Lisa took him to Ryther, a residential treatment facility in Northeast Seattle. There, in a cluster of therapy buildings and residential cottages on a sloped, grassy lawn, the staff helped him learn to control dangerous behaviors he’d developed, such as kicking a dog or threatening to kill Lisa.

But after December, Ryther will no longer serve foster children like Skyler. After at least 50 years, the center that serves many of Washington’s youngest and most vulnerable foster children is ending its contract with the state. Ryther can no longer afford it, the center’s director says.

The move leaves 26 children looking for new homes. Some have already departed for foster or group homes, and one child, who has been hospitalized two times for psychiatric concerns in the past six months, was placed out of state. But some are still left without a plan.

“We’re all asking the same questions,” says DeAnn Adams, director of specialized residential services at the Friends of Youth nonprofit, which also serves foster children. “Where are the youth going?”

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The move comes amid national conversations about how to serve the most vulnerable foster youth, including those with extreme behaviors or psychiatric conditions. Research suggests that foster children in group-based care, including those who have experienced trauma, have worse school outcomes than those in family settings. A 2018 federal law, the Family First Prevention Services Act, favored family homes and added strict limitations to federal funding for such group care.

Even so, advocates and state officials agree there is a need for places like Ryther. Limited outcome data exists, but self-reported information suggests Ryther is effective: Compared to average state outcomes for therapeutic foster care, children there improved slightly more on measurements of depression, hyperactivity and traumatic stress. At any given time, about 365 children from Washington live in behavioral rehabilitation facilities, state data shows.

Ryther serves children with extreme trauma and behaviors. With 36 beds, it is the largest facility of its kind in the Puget Sound region. It has a school, medical professionals and 24-hour, long-term care. Unlike many other options in Washington, Ryther can serve very young children. Skyler was 7 when he arrived.

Ryther’s campus in Northeast Seattle serves children with extreme trauma and behaviors. With 36 beds, it is the largest facility of its kind in the Puget Sound region. It has a school, medical professionals and 24-hour, long-term care. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)
Ryther’s campus in Northeast Seattle serves children with extreme trauma and behaviors. With 36 beds, it is the largest facility of its kind in the Puget Sound region. It has a school, medical professionals and 24-hour, long-term care. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

Ryther officials say they can’t sustain their current population. The state pays for these children, but the per-child rate has failed to keep up with staff salaries, said Karen Brady, Ryther’s chief executive officer. Until recently, behavioral specialists there were paid $17 an hour — a rate so low that some quit to take less demanding jobs for similar or more pay. About 60% of staff turned over this year, and the agency struggled to find replacements, Brady added. Without staff, Ryther could not operate at more than 80% of the cottages’ capacity for most of this year, she said.

In September, Ryther told the state it would no longer take foster children. As an acknowledgment of the program’s predicament, the state temporarily boosted its allotment for each Ryther child. Ryther chose to spend that extra money, which will last through December, by paying staff $19 per hour instead of $17 — an effort to keep them around as kids leave.

But the state hasn’t agreed to a long-term fix.

For Skyler, now 11, a stay at Ryther led to a life-changing decision: He improved so significantly that his foster mom Lisa adopted him.

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As Skyler put it, Ryther “made me who I am today.”

Who serves state’s most vulnerable foster kids?

Roughly 3% of Washington’s foster children live in group settings, a relatively small number compared with other states, says Jenny Heddin, chief financial officer for Washington’s Department of Children, Youth & Families (DCYF). The agency oversees funding for the state’s child welfare system, including funding for Ryther. Ten years ago, Heddin said, about 1,000 foster children received behavioral rehabilitation services, including at places such as Ryther. That number is now about 600.

The decline is rooted in changing views on the value of group homes. But, Heddin said, it also has to do with lack of public funding for residential services.

“Do we need more? I think the answer is actually yes,” she said of places such as Ryther. The state is seeing increasing needs for very young foster children, she added.

Similar organizations have closed or pivoted to other models, such as providing emergency services for days or weeks instead of months or years. Such placements help keep children out of hotel rooms — where hundreds of foster children end up each year in the midst of serious financial strain across the state’s system.

“They don’t know where they’re going”

The foster parent who took Skyler to the ice rink eventually adopted him. But Skyler said that family abused him. After that, at age 6, he was placed with Lisa. (Skyler and Lisa’s last names are not being used to protect their privacy — Lisa wanted to protect Skyler from stigma.)

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Lisa always wanted to be a mom, but never had children of her own. Skyler lived with her for about a month before his behavior became explosive. The survival skills he’d developed with his former family, such as freezing or deflecting in the face of abuse, gave way to violent tendencies.

Memories of his abuse triggered him, Lisa said. He’d punch or kick her, or he’d kick the family’s 8-pound poodle. Lisa installed an electronic lock on her bedroom door and kept scissors and knives out of reach. Skyler tried different therapies but his behavior escalated. “I was heartbroken,” she said of the day she brought him to Ryther. She wasn’t sure she’d see him again.

Skyler has only two mementos from life before Ryther: a fuzzy blue blanket patterned with penguins and snowflakes, and a stuffed monkey. He lost some possessions he brought to Ryther, such as a toy squirrel, and broke others, such as a night light, during fits of anger. His toys were kept locked in a cabinet, his bed bolted to the ground.

Ryther serves many children with a history of abuse. Some are violent toward others, while some have suicidal thoughts or tendencies.

To keep everyone safe, children have their own rooms in three large cottages. The cottages sit near therapy buildings, a ropes course where children learn to manage their behaviors, and a four-classroom school run by Seattle Public Schools. Having classrooms on site benefits children who aren’t ready to spend entire days at a neighborhood school, Brady said. This also helps surrounding schools that don’t have resources to meet the needs of Ryther’s population.

But one by one, the 26 foster children who live at Ryther are beginning to leave. By the end of December, all will likely be gone.

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On a Thursday in early November, a staff member loaded an oversized black suitcase into a golf cart — the belongings of a teenage girl transferred to a foster home. State officials have said they intend to keep all children in Washington, but recently decided to transfer one child to the Midwest (over 30 foster children from Washington are currently in other states, according to the most recent data).

Not every child has a placement plan, Brady said, including some young children with serious behavioral problems. Moving several times can create a sense of instability, she said, especially for foster children with trauma or emotional or behavioral problems: They don’t have a stable family life and often have trouble regulating their emotions.

“These kids have moved about a zillion times,” she says. “It’s hard and it’s scary because they don’t know where they’re going.”

Ryther’s financial problems hinge on the amount of money the state provides. For over a decade, Heddin said, facilities such as Ryther received an average of $230 per child daily — the same amount set aside for less intensive settings, including foster homes. The rate jumped by about $50 in subsequent years. It went up again to just over $400 after a recent study of how Washington funds behavioral rehabilitation services. In contrast, Brady said, private insurance pays an average of $500, approaching the cost of serving these children.

The new rate doesn’t account for differences in expenses across Washington, such as entry-level wages in high-cost places such as Seattle compared to lower-cost cities such as Spokane. And Heddin said DCYF doesn’t intend to ask lawmakers for additional funding this year, an off year in the state’s two-year budgeting cycle.

“Now we’re in a hard spot with what else to do,” she said.

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Ryther has long relied on philanthropy to plug its budget holes. In 2017, Brady said, Ryther raised almost $3 million. By comparison, the state paid it about $4 million in fiscal year 2019, Heddin said.

Ryther is also turning to its endowment: According to Brady, Ryther has had to draw down about $500,000 in interest from its endowment most years since 2014. “If we were to do this until we’re just sunk, we could maybe go another two, three, four years but that means we’d have to get rid of every asset we have,” she said.

But Brady said the immediate strain of losing staff has made ending its contract the only option. Ryther will continue to house privately insured children, who may have wealth, family nearby and other support networks.

Break down the wall

Lisa saw “big improvements” in Skyler’s behavior the first time she visited him at Ryther. He received treatment there for more than 6 months before reuniting with Lisa in 2016. She formally adopted Skyler in 2018.

Ryther has long been a safety net for children such as Skyler, and its loss “adds to the crisis” facing the state’s foster care system, said Jill May, executive director of the Washington Association for Children & Families.

Morning Star Boys’ Ranch in Spokane and Northwest Children’s Home in Idaho provide similar services, but not for the same exact population.

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Ryther and these centers are the “most expensive” type of foster care given their 24-hour nature and the medical and behavioral needs, Adams said. Friends of Youth used to have a state contract for short-term residential services, but the state discontinued this type of contract this year; the organization decided against applying for a contract similar to Ryther’s.

Seattle-based Pioneer Human Services, which runs several programs including an emergency residential center for foster children, has seen serious staff turnover.

Wages “continue to go up and rates don’t keep pace,” said Hilary Young, vice president of advocacy and philanthropy there. “We have to invest in the things that we say matter.”

Ryther certainly mattered to Lisa and Skyler.

At home, Skyler looked at framed photos that had been shot the week before he went to Ryther. In the images, his dark-blond hair is shorter, his face a bit rounder, his smile a bit forced. “Honestly, I had no reason to smile,” he said.

Skyler still has a way to go. In November, another boy beat him up after basketball. He froze in place and spent the next day avoiding school work. He has trouble sleeping. And he’s still quick to shut down. He still visits a therapist at Ryther once a week for cognitive behavioral therapy, where he’s talking through trauma and finding healthy ways to respond to triggers.

The way Skyler described it, he’s built a wall in front of his memories and feelings. To truly get better, he said, he has to break it down.

In many ways, he’s in a different place now. He is fully mainstreamed at school, dreams of becoming an Eagle Scout and is progressing in tae kwon do. Lisa no longer worries about her and Skyler’s safety.