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Washington's foster children still spend more nights in hotels, despite investigation

Washington state, again, is seeing an increase in the number of foster children who are spending more nights in hotel rooms over licensed homes.

SEATTLE — A new report reveals Washington state’s foster children are spending more nights in hotel rooms instead of licensed care homes.

The increase comes despite a KING 5 investigation in February in which the secretary of the Washington State Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) pledged to curb the practice.

In his 2020 year-end report, DCYF ombuds Patrick Dowd said children in the foster care program spent a combined total of 1,863 nights in hotel rooms, under the watch of social workers or security guards. That’s a 23% increase in the number of total nights in a hotel room when compared to last year, which also saw a significant increase -- 40% -- in the use of hotel rooms to house children.

“For those children, it’s very important. It can be traumatic, and it underscores the gaps in the (DCYF) system,” Dowd said.

Dowd said most of the hotel nights involved two dozen of the most hard-to-place children who have developmental disabilities, behavioral, or mental health issues.

Dowd said DCYF has not created enough therapeutic homes or facilities to house these children who need significant structure and treatment.

In KING’s February report on the use of hotels, DCYF Secretary Ross Hunter agreed.

“We have got to get ahead of this problem. It’s the biggest problem I have operationally in child welfare,” Hunter said in February.

In an interview with KING 5 this week, Hunter was asked why the use of hotels is on the increase.

“Why did that happen? Because there are more kids with challenging behaviors that I can't place because of the pandemic. We're having challenges with foster parents being willing to take kids in during the pandemic,” Hunter said.

RELATED: ‘A hopeless feeling’: Former Washington foster child spent more than 100 nights in a hotel

In King County, for example, 30% of foster homes have stopped taking new kids because of COVID-19 fears, according to the ombuds report. 

Even in normal times, the state does not have enough homes that specialize in hard-to-place kids.

Secretary Hunter said the Legislature approved more funding and DCYF is rolling out new programs targeting kids with challenging behaviors.

“We will roll out 15 of those beds as an experiment starting this month for them this month, and the rest of them in the first quarter (on next year),” Hunter said.

David Cerrone spent more than 100 nights in a hotel room after he was thrust into the foster care system at age 16.

“It’s kind of a hopeless feeling because it’s like, ‘What is the point of this?’” the now 18-year-old Cerrone told KING 5 in February.

Cerrone said most of the other kids he saw in hotel rooms were younger – ages 4 to 10.

The ombuds report makes a suggestion that the state should accept, for the short term, that it will need to use hotel rooms and should stop requiring kids to take "… all of their belongings with them, with the expectation they will not be returning to the same room."

The report states that requiring the kids to pack up every day shows a "remarkable lack of continuity," in addition to the routine fast-food and hours of idle time each day that the children are subjected to.

"I went there with my bag of clothes," Cerrone said of being shuttled from room to room with his few possessions.

RELATED: Advocates demand Washington bring out-of-state foster children home after child's death in Michigan