For a fifth year in a row, the state has relied in ever greater numbers on hotels and offices to house children in its care. So now what?

That’s a central question in a report issued Monday by Patrick Dowd, director of the Office of the Family and Children’s Ombuds.

The Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) sent 220 children to sleep in hotels and offices during a 12-month period ending in August. Roughly nine of them were 4 or younger and, while most children spent only a few nights at such emergency placements, one stayed for 126 nights.

The overall number of affected children actually improved from the previous year, when 280 children spent nights in hotels and offices. But the number of collective nights at these locations rose 23% this year — to 1,863 — a reflection of the challenges created by the coronavirus pandemic, Dowd said.

Many foster homes, including 30% of those in King County, stopped taking children because of concerns about the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Before the pandemic hit, Dowd offered ideas about how to fix what he described as an alarming trend. Now, he said he’s examining what can be done to make a bad situation a little more humane while waiting for long-term solutions.

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In his view, that means changing DCYF practices in its emergency placements, such as requiring kids to leave a hotel early in the morning and spend all day at an agency office, only to go back to that hotel or a different one in the evening. That results in a “remarkable lack of continuity,” Dowd wrote in his report, as well as “gaps in education, inadequate access to nutritious food, emotional dysregulation” and children losing their belongings in transit.

The report also draws attention to a 42% drop in calls about suspected abuse and neglect. With the pandemic resulting in many children no longer attending school, extracurricular activities or regular doctor appointments, they are not seeing professionals who are mandatory reporters of abuse. Add to that the stress on families created by the pandemic, and there might be considerable abuse and neglect happening out of sight, Dowd suggested.

He also noted the pandemic has had a detrimental impact on efforts to unify families after children have been taken into state care. DCYF initially suspended many in-person visits between children and their parents, making them remote instead, which were a particularly poor substitute for the youngest children, Dowd said. The agency has gradually resumed in-person visits.

Tara Urs, special counsel for civil practice and policy for the King County Department of Public Defense, whose clients include children and parents separated by the state, said she was pleased with the pressure she believes the report will place on DCYF regarding hotel and office stays.

It acknowledges such stays are happening “in the worst possible way,” she said, adding trauma to children already traumatized by being taken into state care. Urs said her office has heard from its young clients about driving around in the evening to pick up other kids so they can all go to a hotel together. They describe it as “a particularly sad part of the day,” she said.

DCYF Secretary Ross Hunter generally praised Dowd’s report, saying “Patrick nails it.”

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Hotel and office says are “a terrible problem,” Hunter said. “And it’s hard to fix. … We just don’t have places for some kids to be.”

The department has taken some measures, he said. In line with one of Dowd’s recommendations from last year, DCYF has trained “therapeutic” foster parents to care for children with complex and severe behavioral challenges, who will also receive mental health support. In the next several months, the department will have spaces for 15 children in these foster homes.

After a delay in implementing funding allocated by the Legislature, the department will also soon have 27 new spaces in group homes for children with such challenges.

Still, he said, that won’t be enough. He said the Legislature needs to fund more beds at inpatient facilities for children with developmental disabilities.

In the meantime, Hunter said he is uncertain about Dowd’s recommendation to normalize hotel and office stays, because improving such placements may make them more likely to be seen as semi-permanent solutions. He said he planned to consult with his counterparts across the country about the proposal.

“I want to think about that before I have a knee-jerk response,” he said.