The following editorial originally appeared in The Seattle Times:
Cases handled by the state Department of Children, Youth and Families are some of the most difficult faced by any state agency, and its overhaul of foster care is long overdue. That work focuses mostly on the front door, where young children are removed from their families.
But one group of foster youth has been pushed aside for decades, at incalculable social cost. These are the kids for whom caseworkers cannot find stable placements. Instead, they sleep in hotel rooms, unlicensed facilities and, until very recently, empty offices. To expect these children to pick up their backpacks in the morning and happily trot off to school is a fantasy.
Last year, 358 of them, some only 10 years old, spent 4,570 nights languishing in hotels and repurposed group facilities.
In 2015, when Patrick Dowd, who monitors outcomes at DCYF, first learned of this population, he was aghast. At the time, children had spent 120 nights in these “exceptional placements.” Today, the number is nearly 40 times higher.
These are kids the state promised to raise better than their biological families had. The state’s failure not only breaches that vow, it also puts others at risk.
Last year, kids in unlicensed placements attacked staff 49 times. Sometimes, the assaults occurred in a moving car.
We can’t put it any plainer than Dowd does: These assaults “are a direct result of multiple systems’ lack of appropriate resources, placements, and services” for kids in dire need.
It is time for Ross Hunter, secretary of DCYF, to turn his prodigious energies toward this group of young people. He has overseen a few steps in the right direction. Where kids spent 771 nights sleeping in DCYF offices during 2021, there were no office stays last year.
As of last month, most of the kids who had gone 20 days or more without a real home had stable housing. But five remained in unlicensed facilities, four were in juvenile detention, and three were “currently missing from care,” meaning on the street. Two, having turned 18, aged out of foster care and, unsurprisingly, declined to extend their time in the system.
DCYF was sued by three such youth in 2021, and in response the department promises an array of changes by the end of next year.
They include creating a corps of professional foster parents trained and paid to handle young people with extreme behaviors; building a system of “hub homes” run by similarly trained foster parents, who can provide respites for one another; and standing up a program for teenagers more suited to living on their own — with case management — than in a family or group home.
Dowd endorses all of these approaches. But the likelihood of meeting the 2024 deadline is not promising.
These kids are on the road to joining Washington’s ranks of those who are homeless or incarcerated. It does not have to be that way.