Seventy-seven nights. That’s how many an 11-year-old spent in a hotel in one year’s time — the most by any child in state care.
In other respects, the kid was far from an anomaly. More than 280 children spent roughly 1,500 nights in hotels or, in a half-dozen cases, offices of the Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) during that time period, ending in August.
“Unfortunately, the placement of children in hotels continues at an alarming rate in Washington,” reads an annual report with those figures released last week by Patrick Dowd, director of the state Office of Family and Children’s Ombuds. The number of nights spent in these “emergency placements” increased 39 percent from the previous year and more than 1,000 percent since 2015.
The placements — surprisingly driven not by a shortage of foster families but an influx into state care of kids with profound needs — has a destabilizing effect and presents dangers for both children and DCYF staffers, according to the report.
“It’s an enormous problem,” agreed DCYF Secretary Ross Hunter. “Repeated stays in hotels is a crazy, bad idea.”
Dowd has been looking into the problem for the last five years, but for this report, he dived deeper than usual, interviewing DCYF’s regional administrators around the state. Surprisingly, the report observes, “many foster homes are empty while children languish in a series of hotel stays.”
The real issue, the administrators said, is that the state is taking charge of more kids with mental illness and developmental disabilities, or involved with the juvenile justice system.
Inadequate social services funding from the Legislature, driven initially by the late-aughts recession, has brought long waiting lists and a dwindling number of beds in group homes and other facilities.
Kids with no other way to get help end up in DCYF’s care, changing the nature of a child-welfare system created to serve the abused and neglected, the regional administrators observed. The agency has become “the service provider of last resort,” according to Dowd’s report.
Child Protective Services, for instance, may be called when parents refuse to pick up a child from a psychiatric hospital, or a detention facility, because they feel unable to care for the youth without support.
But that same lack of treatment options hampers DCYF. Witness the recent announcement by Ryther, a center serving children with emotional and behavioral issues, that it is ending its contract with the state because of poor reimbursement rates.
In his report, Dowd cites a 17-year-old struggling with substance abuse, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder and anxiety. DCYF resolved to send him to an out-of-state group home, an option drawn upon when the agency can’t find a local placement. This presents its own problems, because the distance makes it hard for the state to monitor care and one Iowa facility was last year accused by Disability Rights Washington of abuse. Since then, DCYF says, it has reduced the number of kids in out-of-state facilities from 100 to around 32.
In any case, no group home was immediately available, so the teen spent 50 nights in hotels while he waited. During that time, he allegedly committed a sexual assault.
DCYF staff provide round-the-clock care of children in hotels and offices, according to the report, but those assigned are after-hours workers — the least experienced. Assaults on staff members or other kids are not uncommon. Some youth have also set fire to DCYF offices, or tried to. Others feel unwanted and consider suicide.
Hotel stays mess with kids’ school attendance, and diet. Though agency staffers sometimes bring them food cooked at home, most subsist on fast food.
In an interview, Dowd said a close analysis of the data offers hope. Of the hundreds of kids affected, just 40 spent 10 or more nights in hotels. “It’s not a huge number,” the ombuds said, adding that finding a solution for these kids seems doable.
His report ticks off recommendations, some by regional administrators and some by him. They include upping state social-services funding, recruiting and training foster parents to care for high-need kids and establishing a new class of “professional therapeutic foster parents” who would be paid for their work.
“It’s absolutely something we should look at,” said Hunter of the professional foster parents idea, though he said he needs more data.
There’s no one solution, said the DCYF secretary, since kids involved with the juvenile justice system and those with mental illness or developmental disabilities have different needs. “We need to have an appropriate resource for each of these sets of kids,” he said.
The challenge, at times, is driven home by another example in Dowd’s report — the 11-year-old who spent 77 nights in a hotel. Brought to the U.S. through an international relief program for orphans, the child had severe mental health and behavioral issues and was, at one point, removed from a residential treatment program after verbally abusing staff, breaking car windows and running away from the facility and into traffic. The adolescent is now at an out-of-state facility.
Hunter said he’s working with the agencies responsible for mental health and developmental disabilities to coordinate responses to the problem. He noted the Legislature last year increased funding for therapeutic group homes, which should bring more beds online soon. He’s waiting to see whether the new budget will contain additional funding.
There are some things he can do on his own, Hunter acknowledged. His department, created two years ago, took over state-administered juvenile justice programs in July. “We’re making changes,” he said, so that staff are not waiting until the night before a kid’s release to find a foster home.
“I clearly own that,” he said.