First, one kid came down with a fever. The next night, two more.
Pioneer Youth Center — Spruce Street, an 18-bed group home where they were living, took the kids to Seattle Children’s, where they tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
Knowing it might have an outbreak on its hands, Spruce Street drove its remaining residents to the hospital for testing — and a fourth kid, while asymptomatic, was found positive.
Contrary to the wishes of the state Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF), Spruce Street refused to take the kids back for quarantining. Many people on staff at the facility, which houses 12- to 17-year-olds in crisis, had tested positive by that time, too, according to Pioneer Human Services, the nonprofit that runs the group home.
DCYF has since stopped placing children at Spruce Street, saying it only uses facilities that “can meet our required duty to provide services.”
But at that moment in May, DCYF resorted to Plan B: sending the kids to a West Seattle office building, where it put cots in rooms normally used for supervised visits between parents and kids in state care. The youths stayed up to 12 days.
The episode last month raised questions about DCYF’s preparedness for outbreaks, with some children’s advocates sharply critical of using an impersonal office building to house vulnerable youth in the foster-care system.
And it came as the department, responsible for the state’s child-welfare system, is dealing with myriad other challenges amid the pandemic: likely budget cuts due to the economic fallout; a 50% drop in the number of calls about suspected abuse and neglect, prompting concern about unseen harm to kids; and a host of details that need figuring out as counties open up and the agency restarts visits between parents and children in state care.
“We have clients who haven’t seen their children in months,” said Tara Urs, special counsel for civil practice and policy for the King County Department of Public Defense.
She noted the vast majority of parents in the dependency system, separated from their kids for a period of time, have not been found to have committed abuse or neglect, but are dealing with issues such as mental illness, substance abuse and lack of housing. “They deeply love their children and miss them enormously,” she said.
All that comes on top of existing problems, which in some cases have deepened. The department is using hotels more for kids it can’t find homes for. The latest data from the state Office of the Family and Children’s Ombuds shows 168 youth spent a collective 1,268 nights in hotels over the past nine months, on pace to exceed fiscal 2019 figures. There have been about 200 more stays from September through May than in all of fiscal 2018.
In an interview, DCYF Secretary Ross Hunter described balancing the needs of many parties — kids, parents, foster families, group homes — while trying to avoid becoming a “super-spreader system” of COVID-19.
As of June 18, DCYF said it knew of 18 coronavirus cases among the 7,750 children in the system, seven cases among foster parents and 26 among staff members at facilities caring for kids.
More will undoubtedly come, Hunter said. “So we have to have a plan for what to do.”
Kids and foster parents can quarantine together, as do other families, he said. “The hardest scenario is when you have kids in group homes.” They are small spaces, making it likely that the virus will spread.
That’s what DCYF faced when COVID-19 started appearing at Spruce Street. Hunter said he was surprised when the facility didn’t take the kids back who had tested positive, but the department made a backup plan early in the pandemic.
It identified two quarantine sites: the Delridge Way office building and Bethel Church in Richland.
The church, which has not been called upon yet to house kids, set up two quarantine rooms in a small building on its campus formerly used as a youth center, according to Windy Hancock, who coordinates a ministry that works with foster families. A church group made quilts and pillows for the cots in the rooms.
Hancock said she had gotten a lot of phone calls and emails from people, some believing that the church was going to house COVID-positive people in the general population and not just foster kids, two at a time. The church put out a statement explaining, and the rumors died down, Hancock said.
The West Seattle site, however, continues to stir debate for a different reason. Urs said its use amounted to “warehousing children in an office building,” sending a message to kids that no home will take them.
Already marginalized, exposed to COVID-19 and put at such a site, “it has to be terrifying for them,” said S. Annie Chung, a lawyer who represents youth separated from their parents.
The quarantine part of the building, on the lowest level, does not contain offices like those above. There are six individual rooms, where parent-child visits used to take place. The rooms have no windows, though there are some in common areas, and they have couches, TVs, DVDs and cots, according to DCYF. There are showers and a kitchen on-site, and three staff members are there at all times, the agency said. The kids are free to socialize with each other.
“It’s not palatial, but it’s a reasonable alternative for two weeks” — one not unlike the confined spaces millions of people are stuck in, Hunter said. “This is the challenge of the pandemic.”
A team from Public Health — Seattle & King County went to the site to give instruction on personal protective equipment for staff and gave the OK for kids to socialize with each other. The team reported back that staff were following infection-control practices, according to a Public Health spokesperson.
What will happen should more group home outbreaks occur?
Hunter said his plan remains the same, for kids to quarantine at the facilities if possible and if not to use the West Seattle and Richland sites as well as a third site he hopes to find.
Jill May, executive director of Washington Association for Children & Families, whose members include groups homes, said an agency running two small facilities in Eastern Washington was able to quarantine its residents after being exposed to a staffer with the virus. It was an easier situation than Spruce Street, May said, because each home had only two or three residents.
Generally, though, May has been pushing the state to move away from expecting the facilities to quarantine residents. These are not elderly people in nursing homes — where quarantines are often playing out — but teens, May said. Some have behavioral issues. “To keep them in their room is impossible.”
The state Department of Health (DOH) in early June came out with new coronavirus guidance for facilities housing kids in the foster system. It says group homes should ask symptomatic residents and exposed roommates to stay in their rooms or quarantine together. But it also calls for “trauma-informed strategies … which may require alternate strategies to retaining youth in a room for isolation and quarantine.”
The guidance does not specify what an alternative needs to look like, but mentions a few possibilities, including a stand-alone cottage or hotel.
While that leaves questions, May said the document’s instruction to call public-health officials for assistance has lessened fears among group homes, although she noted resource-strapped officials in rural counties are less equipped to help.
The next outbreak will be a crucial test.