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Washington state agrees to end hotel, office stays for foster youth

The court order, if signed by a judge, would also prohibit the child welfare agency from making foster youth spend the night in cars.

The Washington Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF) has agreed to put an end to its years-long practice of placing foster youth overnight in hotels and state offices, according to federal court documents filed on Friday. 

DCYF officials and a group of lawyers representing foster youth in a federal class action lawsuit met last week to hash out the details of the joint proposed order, which would require the department to stop overnight hotel and office stays by Nov. 1 if a U.S. District Court judge signs off, court records show.

“(The) order is an initial agreement on some limited steps the agency will take in a very challenging situation,” said Nancy Gutierrez, a DCYF spokesperson, in a statement. “We are working with our provider community to ensure that we have placement options appropriate for these high-needs youth.

The proposed order, which spells out 13 conditions of the agreement, would also prohibit the child welfare agency from forcing foster youth to spend the night in cars — a practice DCYF has repeatedly denied using, despite numerous social workers and foster youth reporting to KING 5 that car stays happen. 

Court records show DCYF agreed to start documenting the circumstances of all instances when a child in state care refuses to accept a placement or spends any amount of time at night in a state office or car, other than transport. The department also agreed to notify the youth’s attorney about each incident and to facilitate meetings to seek resolutions when foster youth refuse to accept the same placement more than once. 

The development comes weeks after a May KING 5 investigation found a years-long pattern of Washington children protection workers dangling basic necessities, like a safe, warm place to sleep as a way to get challenging foster youth to behave or follow orders. The investigation, which was based, in part, on interviews with more than two dozen current and former DCYF employees, revealed agency supervisors instructed social workers to make youth sleep in uncomfortable places — like in social workers’ cars, on DCYF office floors and on plastic chairs and cots in office lobbies — when they refused to accept a placement at a foster home or group home. 

The KING 5 story, which led a state watchdog to launch an investigation into the matter earlier this month, was shared with the U.S. District judge, according to a review of a court motion filed by the plaintiffs on May 24. DCYF filed an objection in response, referring to the information in the story as “hearsay.” Three weeks later, the child welfare agency agreed to cease its practice of hotel, office and car stays. 

If the agreed-upon order becomes official, the changes will have a significant impact on Washington foster youth and DCYF, which has long been under scrutiny for relying on night-to-night placements to house a growing number of foster youth with some of the most complex behavioral and mental health needs. Many of those youth, like Abagail Lehman, said nights spent in the DCYF office and other temporary places made their mental health and behavioral struggles worse. 

“It caused me depression and anxiety. It caused me to feel frustrated. It caused me to explode more,” said Lehman, who is now 18 in extended foster care. “No one deserves to feel unwanted. No one deserves to feel uncared about every single day.” 

It’s not clear where DCYF will house foster youth without placements once they stop using hotels and state offices as an option. Washington state, which has spent years dealing with a shortage of foster care placements and intensive therapeutic homes, will have until September to come up with a detailed plan, according to the proposed order. 

Disability Rights Washington, the National Center for Youth Law and the Seattle law firm Carney Gillespie PLLP sued DCYF in U.S. District Court in January, accusing the state of failing to provide stable housing for hundreds of foster youth. 

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.

In addition to ending the practice of housing foster children in hotels, state offices and “other temporary stays,” the plaintiffs call on DCYF to make other systemic changes. Their demands include instituting a “process for providing an individualized needs assessment to all children subjected to these harmful placement practices,” 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” and addressing the “lack of family reunification-focused services,” according to the complaint.