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Washington state accused of widespread failure to house foster children

A lawsuit alleges Washington state failed to provide stable housing for growing numbers of foster children.

Editor’s note: The KING 5 Investigators video above detailing a report about Washington’s foster children spending more nights in hotel rooms instead of licensed care homes was originally published in December 2020.

A group of youth advocacy organizations filed a federal lawsuit against Washington state, saying it has failed to provide stable housing for growing numbers of foster children.

“These children, among the state’s most vulnerable, are being deeply harmed by short-sighted and inhumane practices,” said attorney Susan Kas of Disability Rights Washington.

The suit lists three children as representatives, identified by initials only, that were shuttled between hotel rooms, state offices and out-of-state facilities,  instead of being housed and treated in a licensed foster home.

The suit names the Washington Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) and Secretary Ross Hunter as plaintiffs. It was filed by Disability Rights Washington, the National Center for Youth Law and Carney Gillespie PLLP.

In February, the KING 5 Investigators profiled the story of David Cerrone, who is now 18-years-old and has aged out of the foster care system.

When Cerrone was thrust into the foster care system at age 16, DCYF social workers escorted him through a series of hotel stays that lasted several weeks. He received no education, treatment or support.

“What I feel pretty much I was told was, ‘It’s your fault you have to get sent to these hotels. This is a result of your actions,’ or something like that,” Cerrone told KING 5 in February. “It’s my fault I don’t have a place to live?”

In spite of years of complaints, numbers released by the state ombuds at the end of 2020 show that hotel stays and overnight DCYF office stays are continuing to rise.

Secretary Hunter told KING 5 that he is aware of the traumatic and chaotic nature of housing children in hotels, but said the coronavirus pandemic worsened the problem in 2020 as some foster homes refused to accept additional placements.

The lawsuit calls on DCYF “…to establish system-wide changes, including addressing the lack of family reunification-focused services and supports; ending the shameful practice of placing foster children in hotels, state offices, and other harmful temporary stays; instituting a process for providing an individualized needs assessment to all children subjected to these harmful placement practices; and developing an adequate array of placements to ensure that children with disabilities receive foster care services in the most integrated setting appropriate to their needs.”

After this story was published on Friday, Jan. 29, DCYF Secretary Hunter shared the following response and video statement:  

"In December, I responded to the Office of the Family and Children’s Ombuds report that highlighted the growing number of children and youth in our care experiencing hotel and office stays.

I shared then, and still feel, that this is an egregious problem that can only be solved through investments by the state.

In September I asked our child welfare policy team to propose a solution by the end of 2020. Their report is available here. While the number of children and youth who experience these exceptional placements is small compared to the overall number in out-of-home care, these children and youth have complex needs that are not easily met and require significant resources.

The Children and Families Ombuds and the media are right for exposing the terrible experiences that the children involved have and I will continue advocate for these young people.

We have not had opportunity to review the lawsuit and cannot provide comment on pending litigation."