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A System in Crisis

Foster Care Crisis

More than a decade after the courts ordered the state to clean up its foster care program, kids are still left rootless, vulnerable.

September 19, 2016

Children entrusted to state care after they are abused or neglected by their parents are bouncing between hotels and other emergency housing, and even being shipped out of Washington with growing frequency, victims of a severe shortage of foster homes.

More than a decade after the courts ordered the state to reduce excessive moves among foster kids, some still find themselves uprooted dozens of times in a matter of months.

This instability ultimately costs taxpayers. It increases foster children’s use of mental health services. As adults, foster kids are more likely to be jailed, have unintended pregnancies, abuse drugs and be unemployed. Experts say the extreme rootlessness experienced by some makes them more likely to fall victim to those perils.

What will it take to overhaul Washington State’s broken foster care system? Join Crosscut, KCTS 9, InvestigateWest and Town Hall for a frank discussion on December 6 at 7:30 p.m. More details to come soon.

An investigation by InvestigateWest for KCTS 9 and Crosscut shows an uptick in foster children who move so often, for so long, that they have become what experts dub “homeless in foster care.”

"It’s just inflicting more trauma to some of the most vulnerable youth,” says Patrick Dowd, the state official in charge of investigating complaints about the foster care system.

The investigation included a review of state records and dozens of interviews with social workers, foster parents and others involved in the foster care system.

In an internal email obtained by InvestigateWest, the administrator in charge of the state's Puget Sound-area foster care system in July described the situation as a “crisis.”

With no place else to take the foster children, social workers have increasingly resorted to housing kids as young as 2 in hotels at night, then babysitting them in state child welfare offices during the day. In June alone, Washington foster kids had 211 hotel stays — more than any other month since the state child welfare ombudsman began receiving complaints about the practice two years ago.

The state has grown so desperate that it pays some foster parents up to $325 a night, more than 10 times the usual daily rate, to board children from bedtime until morning. It stashes other children in group facilities for runaways and youths with severe mental health problems, not because they need such close monitoring, but because there are no regular foster families to take them.

This can add up to 10, 20, even 50 moves in a matter of months — for young children as well as unruly teens. Earlier this year, for example, a 4-year-old was moved between 10 different families over three months and also spent several nights in hotels, according to records obtained by InvestigateWest.

With each move, kids’ behavior often worsens, making it harder to find a foster family — or even a group facility — able to deal with them. Many eventually flee to the streets, where they are more likely to be victims of sex trafficking and violence.

“If we do not care for these children appropriately, we know, unfortunately, that they then move into homelessness, into our juvenile justice and other public care systems,” says Bill Grimm, a lawyer with the National Center for Youth Law. “So they add to the cost that we then have for taking care of them down the road.”

Evidence of such harm to foster kids helped Grimm and other advocates win a 2004 settlement requiring the Washington Department of Social and Health Services to give foster kids more stability. Once the state met that goal, though, court monitoring of moves stopped. And moves are increasing again, according to state records, social workers and foster parents themselves.

Over the past year, “We would get emails with 20 kids [needing homes] in them, saying it’s a crisis, we need placements, help us,” says Seattle foster mom Lauren Hubbard, who adopted her daughter Angelique Kelley, 15, out of foster care.

Lauren Hubbard and Angelique.

In three years in foster care, Angelique moved 17 times — an average of once every two months. It took Hubbard weeks to convince her to unpack her suitcase.

As with many foster kids, those moves left Angelique struggling in school. With all of her school changes, no one had stopped to figure out that she had dyslexia. “I just felt stupid,” she says. She’s still four or five years behind.

Amid all those moves, Angelique says, her heart “broke into 17 pieces.”

A major driver of the placement crisis is a large decrease in the number of available foster homes, a topic we’ll cover in a forthcoming story. While the state for decades had about 6,000 foster homes, over the last eight years that number has dropped to about 5,000. At the same time, the number of kids removed from their homes has increased in the past few years, after falling during the recession, likely due in part to skyrocketing rates of heroin and prescription opioid addiction. Neglect due to parents’ drug addiction is a common reason for kids coming into the system. Other youths have been abused physically or sexually, or otherwise severely mistreated by their parents or guardians.

Beyond recruiting more foster parents, longtime observers say new approaches are needed to care for the growing number of foster children with severe mental health and behavioral troubles.

As a child, really what you’re longing for is stability and some kind of certainty, and most kids have that. But for kids in foster care, there’s constant upheaval, there’s never an opportunity to let your guard down and rest. You’re just trying to survive.
— Adam Cornell, Snohomish County prosecutor and a former foster child

“The more we get involved, the more we realize just how broken the system is,” says Dan Hamer, an associate pastor at Overlake Christian Church in Redmond who oversees support services for foster and adoptive families and has also taken in foster kids himself.

“We can’t just keep repeating the same thing, and think, ‘Oh, we just need more, better recruitment, better retention’” of foster parents, Hamer says. “You’re not going to get that until you change some of the fundamental problems within the system.”

Some of the most promising fixes include training and paying highly skilled foster parents, expanding mental health services for the most troubled kids and paying experienced social workers enough to keep them around. But these solutions all cost money that would have to come from the Washington Legislature.

Meanwhile, the legislature has yet to fully restore the steep recession-era budget cuts that trimmed more than 15 percent of Children’s Administration workers, froze social workers’ salaries, and slashed services for foster children and parents.

The DSHS administrator in charge of the foster care system acknowledges that the agency, even if it were properly funded, needs to expand options beyond traditional foster families.

“We, like many child welfare systems, have clung to the foster care model and, rightly or wrongly, have used that as a solution,” says Jennifer Strus, the DSHS assistant secretary who heads the Children’s Administration. “We’re a reactive agency, just by the nature of what we do, and I don’t think that we probably were looking ahead as much as we probably should have.”

“But we're certainly doing that now.”

For foster kids, the changes can’t come soon enough.


Emergent help needed!

In June and July, social workers in DSHS Region 2, spanning Western Washington from King County north, received a string of emails from supervisors with subject lines such as “Placement crisis in the region” and “Emergent help needed!” The regional administrator wrote of “a placement crisis that continues to worsen” and warned that mandatory overtime for hotel stays would be required if not enough people volunteered.

“The parents have way too many rights, when they’re the ones who put the child in this situation in the first place. They told me it’s [our mom’s] constitutional right to be a parent, and we can’t take that away. You don’t have to be a good parent, they told me. It’s not against the law to be a bad parent. When are we going to worry about what’s best for the child? It’s the parents who have all the laws.”
— Brandon Fogg, 24, spent about six years in foster care, until he was adopted. As an adult, he fostered his baby brother for two years in the hope of adopting him, before a judge returned him to their mother in June.

The summer’s surge in hotel use signals how urgent the foster family shortage has become.

Department policy prohibits keeping children overnight in DSHS offices — a common practice in past decades — or in “an institution not set up to receive foster children.” But agency managers can approve “placement exceptions” for children to stay in a hotel, office or apartment.

The number of nights kids stayed in hotels increased more than seven-fold over the last year. In the past 12 months there were 883 placement exceptions involving 221 children, compared to just 120 exceptions involving 72 kids in the previous year, according to the state Office of Family and Children’s Ombuds, which handles complaints about the foster care system. Nearly all occurred in Region 2 last year, with 57 percent in King County. Almost all were hotel stays, but in a few cases kids also stayed in DSHS offices.

In addition to the cost of the hotel room, the state must pay two social workers, and sometimes a security guard, who stay awake all night supervising the children.

Teens are most likely to end up in hotels, but children as young as 2 have recently spent nights there. Three-quarters of the children placed in hotels last year were age 12 and older, and a disproportionate number were children of color, the Ombuds office reported. Many have significant mental health needs or a history of running away, aggressive behavior, or using drugs or alcohol.

Those troubled kids are tough to place in any foster home, Strus of DSHS says.

InvestigateWest learned of one teen who recently spent 38 consecutive nights in hotels. Others have spent two or three weeks in hotels, often interspersed with one-night foster-home stays.

Child advocates call the practice unacceptable.

“These are youth that probably are in greatest need of stability... and yet these are the ones that don’t know where they are going to be sleeping the next night,” says Dowd, the state ombudsman.

Hotels are the option of last resort. One step below that are a handful of high-priced foster homes that agree to put children up for one night at a time for daily fees ranging from $40 to $325. Those amounts can be on top of the $100 per night paid to some so-called receiving homes that take children when they first come into care. Standard reimbursement rates for most foster parents start at about $18 a day.

“We hold people accountable to sex abuse, to physical abuse, to all these different kinds of abuse, because the laws protect children from them. Why can’t we protect children from the abuse of excessive moves? Of breaks in attachment? It seems like we should be able to do that.”
— Michele Schneidler, foster and adoptive mom, and pastor for orphan care at Overlake Christian Church

DSHS said such high fees are typically authorized for children or youth with very high needs.

These night-by-night foster parents often require social workers to drop the children off after 7 p.m. and to pick them up as early as 6:30 in the morning. With no one to drive them to school, these children typically spend the next day sitting in a DSHS office.

“The youth is not getting any sort of positive relationship or nurturing from a caregiver,” Dowd says. “And what kind of message does that give the youth as far as their own value?”

Several social workers said using such night-by-night foster homes is not new, but that the fees they demand have crept up steadily.

“They kind of hold the department hostage, which is a horrible thing to say,” says Tanya Copenhaver, a social worker with the Children’s Administration for 15 years who left a year ago for a better-paying job in healthcare. “But you have to place the kid somewhere, so you have to pay the money.”

Strus denied that the situation is markedly worse than in the past. “To describe this as a placement crisis that is new to us would not be accurate,” she says. “We have always probably had a need for more foster parents than we usually have. The kids have gotten more difficult... and it's difficult to find people who are willing to take these kids on with their multiple issues.”

A new six-bed facility that opened in July in Seattle has helped ease the immediate crisis, Strus says. In August, hotel stays dropped to 25. This fall, another 20 beds for teens will become available.

But long-term, two dozen beds are not going to solve the crisis.


More moves, more troubles

After family turmoil left him homeless at age 13, Ronnie Andrews says he moved nearly 50 times in five years, mostly between short-term group facilities.

Andrews, now 18, remembers one of the many times his social worker came to move him. They loaded his few possessions into her car. “I looked in the back, and I just seen all my stuff in plastic bags, and I just started crying,” Andrews says.

“I cried ‘cause of how bad it was to sit there and look at that ... and how many times I’ve had to take my stuff out of those bags, and like a week or two weeks later, having to put them right back in there.”

We have a giant billboard by our house saying, ‘Make a shelter pet part of your world.’ But there’s nothing that says, ‘Become a foster parent, because otherwise these kids are spending 24 hours at a placement desk, which is no way to treat them.’
— Lauren Hubbard, a foster mom in Seattle

Andrews’ story is similar to that of the dozen foster children who filed the Braam v. State of Washington class action lawsuit, which was settled in 2004. The judge agreed that children had been harmed by excessive moves and unsafe placements, including stays in DSHS offices and detention centers.

Under an independent monitor, moves among foster children fell steadily through 2011, when the state met agreed-upon benchmarks and court scrutiny ceased. But the number of moves appears to be creeping up again. Southwestern Washington, in particular, has seen a sharp spike in moves, with rates that are one and a half times the state as a whole.

Between 2012 and 2014, the percentage of children with three or more moves in the first year of care rose to 19 percent from 15 percent, according to a DSHS report to the federal government. The federal standard says no more than 14 percent of children should have that many moves.

These averages conceal the stories of many children who still experience dozens of moves.

Among many other examples documented by InvestigateWest in the past year:

  • A 7-year-old had 18 placements over about two months, including 10 different foster homes, plus time in group homes and hotels.
  • A 3-year-old who was initially placed in a short-term shelter laid his head at five foster homes within two months.
  • Over a two-week period, a 5-year-old was shuffled between six homes and also spent several nights in hotels.
  • A 14-year-old spent 40 nights in hotels and one-night foster homes before the state found a family that would keep him longer — for a fee of $200 a night.

These kids represent a small portion of the roughly 9,000 children in foster care in Washington as of this summer. But social workers say that it has become increasingly difficult to find any family — let alone a family matched to a child’s needs — even for the youngest kids in need.

In the past, veteran social worker Copenhaver says, she had some ability to be mindful of a child’s cultural and behavioral needs in order to find a home that might last. “But you’re not able to do that now, because we just have to place them where there is a bed available, and a foster parent who’s willing. ... And that leaves kids bouncing from home to home to home.”

Even when a home is available, many foster parents are not prepared or trained to take emotionally troubled children. At least half of foster children have serious mental health or behavioral problems, studies show. And when “the inevitable explosion with these kids happens, there’s no support” from the state, says Dan Hamer, the Overlake Christian Church pastor. “So it’s placement number 19, placement number 20.”

“Once you’ve been through 10, 12 placements, you’re traumatized, and then every placement is a trigger, and nowhere is safe. So then you fail in all of the next placements, because you’re set up for failure. So by the time they’re 15, 16, 17, they’re like done, and they go the streets. And that’s where I meet them.”
— Kathleen Hamer works with homeless kids as a youth outreach counselor at Overlake Christian Church in Redmond. Dan Hamer runs support programs for foster and adoptive families as an associate pastor at Overlake.

When foster children are shuffled between homes, trusting and attaching to anyone becomes harder and harder, experts and the kids themselves say.

The more children are moved, “the less likely it is that they’re going to make an emotional commitment or investment in the next home,” says Dee Wilson, who led a research institute at the University of Washington School of Social Work after 26 years of service at the Children’s Administration. “So you can end up getting kids who are very, very hard to find them a family at all after a while, because they have a deep distrust of adults that’s based on some really good reasons.”

Ronnie Andrews remembers how he felt more detached with each move.

“I would sit there when I first moved into a place,” Andrews says, “and I'm like, ‘Do I even want to build a relationship? Do I even want to try in this place? ‘Cause how long am I even going to stay here for?’”

Like many long-term foster children, Andrews turned 18 without being adopted or finding a legal guardian.

More than half of youth who age out of care without ever getting a permanent home were in foster care for three or more years, according to DSHS’s 2016 progress report to the federal government. Children of color tend to stay in foster care longer and to experience greater instability than white kids, the report says.

Children who enter foster care with behavioral problems, not surprisingly, are harder to stabilize. But studies show that even children who don’t start out with problems are more likely to develop them when they are moved around.

Young children, in particular, are harmed by instability. For children under 3, every additional move has been linked to more behavior problems. For older kids, unplanned moves — usually because the foster parents can’t cope with the child’s behavior —  have the most negative impacts, Wilson says. “It frequently is viewed by the children as rejection, which a lot of times it is.”

Tougher kids, fewer resources

Foster children are coming into care with more problems than ever, experts agree. That’s due in part to the state’s success at keeping children with their families by providing voluntary services, meaning the kids who end up getting removed are the ones for whom those efforts haven’t been successful. “So you inherently get more difficult children,” Copenhaver says.

Many kids living on the street are “refugees from foster care.”
— Kathleen Hamer, youth outreach counselor

At the same time, resources to care for such children, including residential facilities and specially trained “treatment” or “therapeutic” foster families, were slashed during the economic downturn.

Concerns about the quality of care in group homes and high-profile abuse scandals at some facilities, such as the former O.K. Boys Ranch in Olympia, also spurred efforts to shutter many group homes in recent decades. Now some say the state needs to reverse course and expand group-care options. But they also caution that children should not be warehoused in such facilities for extended periods.

State Rep. Ruth Kagi, a Seattle Democrat who chairs the House Early Learning and Human Services Committee, agrees that the state must increase capacity in group homes. “But by far the best alternative is to develop therapeutic foster homes, where foster parents are well-trained on how to manage these behaviors,” Kagi says. She has also asked the department to report by November on what’s needed to address the placement crisis and how much it’s likely to cost.

To avoid placing kids in group facilities, DSHS is considering expanding the use of so-called “staffed residential” foster homes, where foster parenting is a full-time job, according to Strus.

But even if the department gets programs like this running, “the thing that throws a wrench into that is ... the legislature cuts your funds, and then you can’t sustain what you’ve built,” Strus says.

In February, Gov. Jay Inslee convened a commission to evaluate the creation of a stand-alone Children’s Administration. The group’s report to the governor is due Nov. 1.

Kagi, who co-chairs the commission, used to oppose spinning off the Children’s Administration. Now she thinks it could lead to a stronger, more coordinated focus on child welfare. “We need to have a department where that department head speaks to the governor directly ... and where children are just a focus of a department,” she says.

Others doubt that such a restructuring can undo decades of inconsistent and inadequate funding. “The Legislature has just practically, by their mismanagement... condemned the state [child welfare] system to mediocrity,” Wilson says. “The idea that somehow there’s some cost-neutral way of fixing this, well that’s just not true.”

Robert McClure contributed to this report.

InvestigateWest is a Seattle-based nonprofit newsroom producing journalism for the common good. Please help support this effort at

This reporting was supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

Allegra Abramo

Allegra Abramo is a freelance reporter whose writing and photos have appeared in ProPublicaNBC NewsSeattle Weekly and other local and national publications.

More stories by Allegra Abramo

Susanna Ray

Susanna Ray has been a journalist for two decades, covering politics, government, the military, business and aviation for major news organizations in the United States and Europe. She is currently based in Seattle.

More stories by Susanna Ray

There are 8 comments

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Thank you for the attention to this growing problem. As a mother who adopted thru the foster system, I was so pleased at how thorough they were. I had only heard bad news about the foster system. I think if all the successes were more advertised, perhaps more families would volunteer. Some of my friends didn't even know they could be "respite care givers".

But a department unto itself, with direct reporting to the governor is critical, to overcome the Parisian budget cuts. And "trained staff" facilities are also critical. It would be like a ER for foster kids: get them stabilized, clothed, enrolled in school, school supplies, medical attention, while a longer term placement is being decided. We have better systems in place for abused animals. Our states children deserve better, and more stability, even in a group setting, is the LEAST we can do.

I wish every politician had to live 2 weeks where an un-placed foster child had to, including the DSHS office. Then I bet they'd prioritize these voiceless children when fighting over their budget.

This is very interesting information, thank you. My name is Caylin and I have been a preschool teacher and educational program assistant for the past 10 years. Since meeting students in foster care in 2014, I have been learning more about the system. This year I'm diving in deeper. I have so many questions about the need for more foster families.If there was a natural catastrophe that swept through our community and caused many children to be out on the streets, most of us would open our doors and bring them in. With Foster Care there seems to be this same level of crisis, with of course other factors such as training, legal processes, and financial and housing requirements. These can be hurdles to many who are willing to foster. How can we support these families? And as mentioned earlier, you don't find billboards asking families to help. So what is currently being done to recruit more families? Would you be able to link me to information on recruiting foster families? I would greatly appreciate that. Thank you for your time. Caylin

The comment from Brandon Fogg really hits home and rings true from my own experience as a foster parent.  I am a liberally minded person, and used to think our system was right with its strong focus on protecting parents rights, particularly mothers.  However, I have seen first hand that the standards for bio parents are just too low, and the current laws protect the parents "rights" to the detriment of the kids.  Cases are allowed to drag on for too long, bio parents are given too many chances, kids are pulled back and forth and the stability of adoption is denied them.We need a system that sets clear standards and timelines for bio parents when they mess up and their kids are placed in foster care.  I think a one year maximum with clear requirements placed on the parents is reasonable.  If the bio parents can't make their kids their top priority for whatever reason, permanent adoptive homes should be the goal.  This should happen as soon as possible because the longer the kids are in the foster system, the lower chance they have of finding an adoptive home.

I am licensed as a foster parent for younger children, and have adopted one child.  I am willing to take in another child, both a short term or long term placement.  However I am single and work fulltime, so I need childcare.  DSHS will pay for childcare, but first you have to find a daycare that will take the DSHS rate (much lower than the going rate in my area) and the DSHS requirements (child goes back home with one day notice and daycare gets zero notice to fill slot), and then there has to be an opening at the daycare.   This severely limits the daycare options in my area so I cannot take short term placements (unlikely to find daycare nearby at the last minute).  I am surprised the article did not mention childcare resources as a challenge for foster parents taking children.

Thank you for alerting us to this issue. We are working on another story that will explore the difficulties foster parents face, which are myriad!

I am curious as to why this article does not address kinship placment?  It was my understanding that every attempt should be made to locate and place with capable family members first.  Do none of these children being placed in emergency expensive facilities have extended families?  I have met several Grandparents and a couple of Aunts who are sucessfully and lovingly raising children of family members.  Why is that option not addressed in this article?  Is the system following the federal mndate to attempt placement with family first?

Great information thanks!i have worked in this field for over 25 years and do not believe we have a quick fix.  outstanding people work day and night both from the state and with private agencies.  As a society we must recognize a few things so we can begin to turn the tide:1.  Foster parents are true Hero's and need to be held in high esteem.  too often we pick out the foster parents who make mistakes or have issues and then lump all foster parents in the same group.  over the years i have met hundreds of foster parents and i am blown away by how wonderful they are, willing to take kids in and treat them as their own.  they are amazing champions of and for our most vulnerable citizens.2.  Individuals and couples who decide to become foster parents need NOT be pressured into going outside their ability or comfort zone.  with the crisis we currently have foster parents pressured into taking extra kids or going outside of their original desired range.  As a result foster parents either get into licensing trouble or burn-out.  by nature foster parents want to help, but if we push them too far we have only deepened the crissis.i have so much more to say, but don't have the time.thank you foster parents of washington state you are making a difference in the lives you touch.

I am so pleased to see attention given to our children in foster care in our state. Thank you for publishing it.Those of us who advocate for change in the child welfare system, know too well that there are some answers to help our children....and we need the collective political will to take action.When cuts to the child welfare system,  made because of an economic crisis that started in 2007, have not yet been restored and when we are hearing that more budget cuts are needed in the coming state biennial budget, what are we to expect.? Our state legislators have failed to recognize that services and programs do not happen without the funding necessary to sustain them. To expect a "system" to operate without adequate people and financial resources, is naive and irresponsible. Those of us in child welfare reform and support work know that we must continue to advocate for the support needed to move the needle in the right direction, we must remain vigilant and hold responsible those elected officials who fail to support our kids by not re-electing them.  Without strong support from a few regular legslators, I doubt we would have the funding we currently have in place.I agree with Dee Wilson when he suggests we hire "professional" foster parents- this approach has not yet been tried in our state and is needed to help seriously traumatized kids begin to heal and receive the approporaite care they need. The Professional Parents approach is not a new concept and it is much more desirable, cost and therapeutically effective than group homes for troubled kids. Sensitive, well-trained and experienced therapeutic care can be had if we have the will to do it. Of course this takes political courage to fund services that don't show an immediate "return on  investment." We have examples, studies, and information about what works in other states and countries. We have only to apply ourselves and take action.  We must properly fund and initiate what we know works, sustain that work, and hold accounable those who don't support our children and their parents- birth, foster, adoptive, kinship, professional.More well-trained and better supported professionals and parents are needed.  Our professionals working at the state and agency levels must also be supported through appropriate pay and benefits, good supervision and support, sensible caseloads, and on-going education.Support for programs that offer practical help to parents and families in foster, adoptive and kinship parenting situations are all needed to improve the system for our kids.  Support groups, professional and well compensated respite care, communuties of support should all be funded and staffed to keep kids and families together.I am planning to attend the Town Hall in Seattle- I hope it leads to large steps and positive movement to improve services for kids and families.I love the attention, to this issue- now let's take action!!