The problem is especially acute in King County and counties to the north, where the overall number of nights in hotels was more than 1,000 between September 2017 and August 2018.

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One hundred foster kids in King County have stayed in hotels over the past year because the state had no place to put them, a situation that Washington’s child-welfare secretary called “disastrous for children.”

Washington, which for years has been dealing with a severe shortage of foster parents and intensive therapeutic homes, has resorted to temporary hotel stays more often —  there has been nearly a tenfold increase in such stays since 2015. The problem is especially acute in King County and counties to the north, where the overall number of nights in hotels was more than 1,000 between September 2017 and August 2018.

It is possibly “the single greatest challenge” facing the state’s child-welfare system, according to a report released this week from the Washington Family and Children’s Ombuds, an independent oversight office.

Youth most commonly sent to spend the night in hotels — or in some cases, in state offices — were ages 5 to 17 and often had significant mental-health needs, or a history of self-harm or suicidal thoughts, the report says. A 16-year-old girl spent 67 days in a hotel before going to an out-of-state group care facility.

Some kids had to spend hours sitting around state offices, where they stole scissors and letter openers, or disappeared, said Patrick Dowd, director of the ombuds office. Often they didn’t attend school. In one situation, two siblings — an infant and a toddler — spent a night in a hotel when both their parents were incarcerated.

Many of these kids are now in group homes outside the state because Washington doesn’t have beds for them, as Crosscut has reported.

“The children and youth I’m most concerned about are the ones that are cycling through the hotel stays because they’re really tough to place, because of behavior issues, because of mental health issues,” said Dowd.

Even Ross Hunter, the secretary of the state Department of Children, Youth and Families, said it was a terrible practice.

“It’s insane,” said Hunter, whose department took over the child welfare system in July from the Department of Social and Health Services. “It’s disastrous for children, it’s disastrous for my caseworkers, it’s absurdly expensive. It costs me $2,000 a night to have two caseworkers and sometimes a security guard, and then costs when a kid punches a hole in the wall.”

But Hunter said that the state’s rates for group homes and other kinds of care providers are far too low, and until the state can pay more, the problem will persist. Hunter said that more than half the workers in state group homes make less than $13 an hour.

“I need more places for kids to be,” Hunter said. “In order to do that, I need to increase rates.”

A lack of foster parents — and the adverse consequences for foster kids — is an old issue for Washington. The state in 1998 lost a landmark class-action suit filed on behalf of foster children. It eventually settled the case in 2005, agreeing to an independent oversight panel, with better foster-care recruitment and training being a key part of the so-called Braam settlement. Yet Washington has fewer foster parents now than in 2005.

The number of children in foster care, meanwhile, has risen by nearly 20 percent since 2012, to more than 9,000.

The state Legislature has been under continual pressure to increase funding for the foster-care system, especially to reduce caseloads to 18 children per caseworker. That was also a key part of the Braam settlement, but Washington has constantly struggled to meet it.

State Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, said the state administration hasn’t treated the lack of appropriate beds with a sense of urgency, especially in legislative hearings on the topic last year.

“It didn’t seem like anybody in the system from any particular standpoint has been hollering about this and treating it with the urgency it’s deserved for a while,” Frockt said.