SEATTLE (AP) — Washington state is failing hundreds of foster children by shuttling them among placements, including short-term stays in hotels and state offices, advocacy groups alleged in a federal lawsuit — a problem that the responsible state agency has recognized.

Disability Rights Washington, the National Center for Youth Law and the Seattle law firm Carney Gillespie sued the Department of Children, Youth and Families in U.S. District Court on Thursday.

The complaint said the department has a duty to protect and support children and help return them to their families if possible, but that instead the instability of the placements hurts them. One 13-year-old plaintiff who has been diagnosed with PTSD has been placed in 30 different foster or group homes across the state since 2016, and he has been placed in hotels or state offices 20 times for stays ranging from one night to two months, it said.

“DCYF’s practices are re-traumatizing children, destroying their ability to bond with and trust adults, interrupting delivery of mental health care, disrupting educational attainment, and extinguishing any hope that children and their families will have the long-term stability they need and deserve,” the complaint said.

In a statement Friday, department Secretary Ross Hunter declined to comment on the specific litigation but generally acknowledged the failings, some of which were also highlighted in December in a report from the Washington State Office of the Family and Children’s Ombuds.

“I shared then, and still feel, that this is an egregious problem that can only be solved through investments by the state,” Hunter said. “While the number of children and youth who experience these exceptional placements is small compared to the overall number in out-of-home care, these children and youth have complex needs that are not easily met and require significant resources.”


He noted that the department’s child welfare policy team had proposed solutions.

The lawsuit, a class action, was filed on behalf of three children identified by only their initials in the complaint. The 13-year-old wants to return home but is being kept in a group home where he is isolated from his family and segregated from his community, advocates said.

The other children are a 16-year-old boy who has had 15 foster care placements, including in institutions in Idaho, Tennessee, and Utah, in the past five years, and a 16-year-old girl who is cycling between one-night stays in hotels and DCYF offices, the complaint said.

The lawsuit accuses the state of violating the children’s constitutional rights as well as the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act. It asks the court to force systemic changes, including more support for family reunification and an end to hotel and office placements.