Washington will attempt to eliminate short-term stays in hotels and other locations for foster children by December 2024, according to a new plan from the state Department of Children, Youth, and Families.
The plan, released in early August, comes after advocacy groups sued the state over placing foster youth in temporary locations such as hotels, offices and even cars. Lawyers involved in the suit told the Standard the December 2024 deadline was not part of a settlement agreement reached with the state in that case and was set by the department independently.
The state’s practice of putting foster care youth in hotels, offices and cars was revealed through multiple King 5 News investigations in 2020. Patrick Dowd, director of the Office of the Family and Children’s Ombuds, said DCYF staff are no longer placing children in offices or cars, but hotels are still used for “emergency placements.” The agency also uses night-to-night stays with foster care families and leased facilities run by the department for emergency placements.
Dowd noted that while the leased facilities provide a temporary place for children to stay, they are not licensed for foster care. “Is it better than hotels? Yes,” he said. “But is it a solution? No.”
The most recent data from the Office of the Family and Children’s Ombuds documents at least 333 children who experienced one or more emergency placements from Sept. 1, 2022 to July 2023. In the same period, there were 1,941 placements in hotels.
“Every night a child is in an office, hotel or night-to-night placement is unacceptable. But we recognize that this will take time,” said Freya Pitts, a senior attorney at the National Center for Youth Law, one of the groups involved in the settlement.
Leecia Welch, deputy legal director at Children’s Rights, another group involved in the lawsuit, said she wishes the state would end hotel stays sooner, but rushing to stop a harmful practice without solid alternatives in place could result in unintended consequences.
“We have children growing up in these systems. They’re not going to benefit from some of the hard-fought aspects of the lawsuit for quite some time,” Welch said. “It’s very frustrating, although I understand the reason behind it.”
Still, Welch said the state’s plan includes many improved practices.
The programs outlined in the implementation plan to end night-to-night stays include a “hub” model, first created in Washington state by the Mockingbird Society. The hub model involves a group of “satellite families” who receive support from each other and an experienced foster family, known as the hub home.
Other programs the Department of Children, Youth, and Families plans to launch include professionalized foster care, independent living situations and a new “Kinship Engagement Unit” that will focus on connecting foster youth to extended family. The department will also expand existing programs and put in place new protocols, many of which are still under development.
The department will prioritize programs tied to the legal settlement. These programs are the product of asking foster care youth who have experienced emergency placements what they would want if they could “wave a magic wand and have a better housing situation,” Welch said.
The next steps involve more negotiation between the state and the plaintiffs on details of the plan and community input. Welch said she hopes people who feel like they haven’t been heard by the department before will take this opportunity to provide feedback on the plan.
“That is going to be, obviously, the key to success,” Welch said.
— By Grace Deng, Washington State Standard
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