OLYMPIA — Former state Rep. Ross Hunter remembers tough calls he had to make as a House budget writer to balance Washington’s books in the wake of the Great Recession.
Now, Hunter is secretary of the state Department of Children, Youth, and Families — and he’s on the other end, asking for a big funding boost.
Washington has struggled to pay for group homes for high-needs foster youth who typically have “complex behavioral health challenges that require 24-hour care not feasible in individual foster homes” according to a department statement.
The state doesn’t pay enough to cover costs of such care, partly due to cuts during the recession, according to Hunter and others. More recently, the state’s rising minimum wage has made it more expensive to staff those facilities.
A report by Disability Rights Washington last October presented some alarming consequences of the shortage of beds here: The state had sent about 80 foster youth to facilities as far away as New Jersey and South Carolina, and at one location, according to the organization’s report, kids sent to Clarinda Academy in Iowa were physically abused, and mostly segregated from the world outside.
Meanwhile, other foster kids wind up staying in hotel rooms because of a lack of beds.
As state lawmakers write a new two-year state budget, they’re considering requests to boost funding for group homes to keep foster youth in state and in more stable situations.
In an interview, which has been edited and condensed for space, Hunter discusses the problems — and the cost — of a solution.
Q: When did you first hear of the abuse allegations at the Clarinda Academy detailed in the Disability Rights Washington report — and what was your reaction?
A: I got a draft copy of that report in August. I froze admissions to that program. We removed all of the children except for one, who begged to stay because he was turning 18 in January and didn’t want the disruption. He was comfortable with the system and he had a plan and I agreed. I thought that was the right call.
I sent all of my senior staff, all the people who report directly to me, went out with a caseworker and we visited every single out-of-state facility. Because I wanted to visit every single child who was in an out-of-state placement, because our model did not have us visiting them. We can’t really do social work out-of-state.
We contract with a caseworker who’s in the state where the facility is, to visit the kid at least monthly. And my people are now going out and visiting every child quarterly and we are having regular phone calls with the child, where they are in a private room where the staff at the facility can’t hear them.
At the time we had 82 children out of state, we are now down to 55, as of last week.
So we’re working on bringing them home. But in order to bring them home, I have to have capacity for them. I have no place to put them. I don’t have any beds today. This is causing this system to be dysfunctional.
Q: The Legislature commissioned a study, which was conducted by an independent firm, to examine how the state pays foster-care providers that operate these homes. What did it find?
A: They found that they needed an enormous increase. It’s $50 million over two years [roughly 46 percent more than the current annual amount], big rate increases. But that is just enough to get them to be solvent, to get them to break even. What we’ve found is we’ve lost a lot of beds in that system, because they’re losing money on each bed. Now these are nonprofit providers, but they can’t run the service and lose money at the same time.
Q: What does increased state rate pay for?
A: It pays for a staffing level of one adult for every three youth. It has a counselor always in contact with those young people. When you think about the K-12 [school] system as being expensive, there’s one teacher for every 25 or 30 children. Here it’s 1-to-3. And it’s 24/7. So, it’s three shifts around the clock. I think we do 1-to-8 at night when they’re sleeping. And it’s weekends. These are children that have very challenging issues.
Q: Without those beds, what’s happening with these high-needs foster kids right now?
A: What happens is, we have the kid in a hotel with two caseworkers and a security guard, which is more expensive. We’ll send the kid to an out-of-state placement … We’ll put the kid in a foster home and they can’t manage the behavior. We’ll be desperate, we’ll put the kid somewhere, but they’ll blow out of that placement in a week. This is how kids get placement after placement after placement, which is incredibly traumatic and damaging to the child.
Q: Lawmakers are expected to release their budget proposals this coming week — do you think they’ll fund the extra $50 million?
A: I don’t know what they’re going to do. We’re certainly working with them closely. And we’re certainly hopeful that they recognize the severity of the problem.