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State watchdog confirms KING 5 investigation that foster care agency punished hard-to-place youth

Watch the full story on the Washington Office of Family and Children's Ombuds' findings on KING 5 News Monday at 11 p.m.

SEATTLE — A Washington Office of Family and Children's Ombuds’ probe, launched in response to a KING 5 investigation, found some Washington foster youth spent most of the night in state vehicles, and child protection workers occasionally used coercive measures to convince the children to accept group home and foster home placements.

The state watchdog investigation, which concluded last month as part of the ombuds’ 2021 annual report, confirms reporters’ findings that Washington Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) employees dangled basic necessities like a safe, warm place to sleep as a way to get challenging foster youth to behave or follow orders.

It also confirmed accounts from social workers interviewed for the KING 5 report, who described DCYF supervisors encouraging them to use psychological tactics, like blasting air conditioning or rolling down the car windows on a cold night, to manage children’s behavior.

“Our review was very consistent with your own report,” Patrick Dowd, director of the ombuds office, told KING 5 investigators. “And we did find instances where vehicles were used. You can either describe it as behavior management or punishment.”

WATCH: No bed, no blanket: Social workers blow whistle on Washington forcing foster youth to sleep in cars, offices as punishment (May 20, 2021)

Dowd’s investigation found that car stays most often occurred when foster youth refused to go inside an available foster home or group home placement. The worker was instructed to wait in the car with the child in hopes they would eventually accept the placement, according to Dowd's report.

“This strategy was occasionally successful, but often it was not,” the report reads. “In some cases, workers and youth both reported additional measures were employed to make remaining in the car uncomfortable, such as turning on the air conditioner, even if it was cold, not allowing the youth to charge their phone, or not allowing the youth to listen to music, in an effort to convince them to accept placement.”

DCYF leaders previously denied the agency has a practice of making Washington foster youth spend the night in state vehicles or that DCYF employees took steps to punish youth who refused to accept placements.

Instead of launching his own internal review after the multi-part KING 5 investigation, DCYF Secretary Ross Hunter announced in July that he would rely on Dowd’s external investigation of the agency’s actions.

In response to the external probe, a DCYF spokesperson reinforced that car stays aren’t tolerated at the department, but she did not address the ombuds’ finding that some foster youth were intentionally subjected to cold air, with no pillows or blankets, while in state vehicles.

“We provided very clear direction to our field staff," DCYF spokesperson Nancy Gutierrez wrote in a statement. "Having children sleep in cars is not an accepted practice. DCYF has maintained this was never condoned practice nor policy for our agency. We have emphasized this with staff.”

In July, two months after KING 5 first reported that foster children were spending the night in cars, the DCYF created a new policy that indicates youth cannot spend overnight hours in cars from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. unless they’re being transported, according to Gutierrez. A recent court order, which stemmed from a federal lawsuit, also prohibits the agency from placing foster youth in cars overnight.

Gutierrez declined to comment on whether the department planned to do an internal investigation following the ombuds’ report or whether any DCYF employees face discipline.

“We have a system in place for staff to report behavior that aren’t aligning with approved practice or our policies,” she wrote. “There are regular meetings and mechanisms in place for staff to provide feedback and identify issues as they arrive in order to approve practices.”

Washington state Rep. Michelle Caldier (R-Port Orchard), a licensed foster parent who cares for state-dependent youth with behavioral challenges or other intensive needs, said the DCYF should take action now that the ombuds investigation is complete.

“I was concerned that perhaps some of the leadership within the agency did not necessarily believe your investigation,” said Caldier. “The fact that the ombudsman office has confirmed this, it sends things down a different pathway.”

The DCYF oversight board, an independent body created by the state Legislature, is expected to invite Dowd to present the results of his investigation at its next meeting on Jan. 20.

Social workers, youth describe car stays 

Dowd’s team has spent the last seven years tracking the thousands of nights Washington foster youth were placed in hotels and state offices due to a lack of placement resources — a statistic he reported “has only worsened” and “ballooned” in the 2021 reporting year, with children spending more than 2,500 nights in offices or hotels.

But this is the first time the ombuds office proactively launched a systemic investigation into the potential that the child welfare agency took punitive actions toward the foster youth who ended up in those night-to-night placements.

Credit: Zoom Screenshot / KING
Patrick Dowd is director of the Washington Office of Family and Children's Ombuds.

After beginning his investigation in June, weeks after the KING 5 investigation, Dowd’s staff reviewed DCYF case narratives and notifications of “placement exceptions” – the term the state uses to describe overnight stays in hotels, offices and one-night foster home placements. His staff also interviewed eight foster youth and 24 DCYF after-hours employees, according to the report.

After-hours social workers are tasked after 5 p.m. with supervising and transporting some of the most challenging and “hard to place” foster children and teens in the state’s care. The ombuds’ office protected the identities of the DCYF employees and children who participated in the external probe.

Dowd said social workers often drove children around for several hours in the evening, waiting for a DCYF supervisor’s instructions on a possible placement or approval from supervisors to take the children to a hotel when a placement didn’t materialize.

When a foster child refused to go inside a placement, one worker told the ombuds investigator he was directed to stay in the state vehicle with the child as long as the placement remained willing to accept the youth.

According to the report, another worker told the ombuds she had five to 10 car stays where she would stay in the vehicle in the parking lot outside of a crisis residential center all night and take the child back to the office in the morning.

The worker also explained that vehicle stays were sometimes used as a punishment. Foster youth and other workers agreed with her assessment, according to Dowd’s report.

“A youth said that on more than one occasion, when she refused placement, the worker turned on the air conditioning all the way, rolled down all the windows, and told her if she refused the placement, she would have to sleep in the car like this,” the report reads.

“I think it’s inappropriate,” Dowd said in a December interview about the results of his investigation. “We also found that very often, these youth had legitimate reasons for refusing a placement based on a past history at a crisis residential center for example, where they didn’t feel safe or they were being taken to a placement that was well outside of their school district or community.”

Social workers and foster youth reported to the ombuds office there were usually no blankets in state vehicles unless a child brought their own. They also told investigators they often lacked access to bathrooms as they waited in cars throughout the night.

Dowd said workers told his team that when there were behavioral issues involving children, DCYF staff would sometimes place kids in cars to separate them from other youth who were staying in hotels and state offices.

“I think it really underscores the kind of struggle that we are facing under the circumstances of trying to identify an appropriate placement for these children when we don’t have a sufficient array, and we’re relying on hotels or offices as a stopgap measure,” he said.

It’s unknown how often car stays occurred or how many youth experienced them, as the DCYF doesn’t track the information and the ombuds investigation did not quantify it.

Dowd’s investigation also reviewed the circumstances and challenges of overnight stays in hotels and state offices, two practices the agency is required to end as a result of the June federal court order, which calls for Washington state to make significant changes so foster children don’t have unstable experiences in the system.

Some workers and teens reported to Dowd’s team that office stays were used as a punishment for refusing placement. And one foster youth described uncomfortable sleeping conditions in state offices.

“You either get a cot, the floor, or the couch,” the youth said, according to the ombuds report. “They are all uncomfortable, even the cot. Sometimes you get a blanket. They are treating us like the trash that we are.”

The ombuds’ probe identified other problems affecting after-hours staff and youth, too.

Dowd and his team found foster youth who spent the night in offices and hotels didn’t always have access to adequate food, clothing and hygiene options or appropriate activities to pass the time during the day. His investigation also revealed social workers sometimes struggled to manage and administer necessary medication for youth.

Additionally, the ombuds probe identified concerns about the safety of after-hours staff, who lack resources and don’t always have vital information about the kids in their care. 

WATCH: Washington social workers claim lack of support from state in after-hours foster care (July 13, 2021)

‘We concur with the recommendations’ 

At the conclusion of the investigation, Dowd issued a series of recommendations to DCYF leaders. The recommendations include expanding training for after-hours workers, increasing staffing for placement exceptions, improving medication management and enhancing case planning for each child, according to the report.

“The real solution to this means that we just need more placements," said Dowd. "We need more foster homes. We need more therapeutic foster homes. We need more intensive care for children. But until we have that in place, I think the department needs to take additional steps.”

The DCYF has not issued a formal response to the report, according to Dowd. But Gutierrez, the DCYF spokesperson, explained the agency was responsive to the ombudsman and appreciates his team's work.

“We concur with the recommendations made in the (Office of Family and Children's Ombuds) report,” Gutierrez wrote in a Dec. 7 statement. “Several of the recommendations align with our plan developed to address exceptional placements.”

Despite the significant increase in placement exceptions during the ombuds’ 2021 reporting year, Dowd found a relatively small number of children made up the majority of hotel and office stays. Sixty-four children accounted for 80% of all placement exceptions, spending a combined total of 2,034 nights in a hotel or office, according to the annual report.

“Why I’m optimistic in a way is that… it seems like it should not be that heavy of a lift to provide appropriate placement and services and stability for 64 children,” said Dowd. 

For months, DCYF has been working through its six-page plan to carry out the federal court order to eliminate office and hotel stays. The exceptional placement plan promises to expand the number of service providers and foster parents serving high-needs youth who are likely to cycle through night-to-night placements. It also pledges to create a new housing option for teens called an “Emerging Adult Transitional Living Program.”

“We are working tirelessly to get a supportive housing option up and running to serve many youth experiencing hotel stays by the end of the year,” Gutierrez, the DCYF spokesperson, wrote. “We also continue our efforts to expand our current placement capacity.” 

Since August, the child welfare agency has largely stopped using offices to house foster children overnight, according to a review of data provided by Dowd’s office. Gutierrez said the department hasn’t had an office stay since Sept. 17. She said the agency has made “tremendous progress” on reducing and finding long-term placements for a large percentage of the foster youth who have exceptional needs.

State data shows the department continues to house a small number of foster children in hotels each night, and it has placed other children in foster homes or group homes for only one night.

Between Nov. 1 and Dec. 5, 46 Washington foster children experienced a placement exception, according to the ombuds office. Thirty-one of the 46 children experienced hotel stays and 21 of the children experienced night-to-night stays. Six children experienced both hotel and office stays.

During that time, the data shows fewer than 10 foster children stayed in a hotel each night.

“Although we are only talking about a small number of youth with very high needs experiencing hotel stays on any given day, the lack of placement options further aggravated by a pandemic and labor shortage has made this task difficult,” Gutierrez wrote. "Our goal continues to be to find safe, stable and therapeutic options for these youth.”