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Hotel stays up, child abuse reports down. New report highlights COVID impacts on WA child welfare

Austin Jenkins / Northwest News Network

The coronavirus pandemic has resulted in Washington foster youth spending more nights in hotel rooms while overall reports of child abuse and neglect have declined precipitously. Those are among the pandemic-related findings of an annual report from the state’s Office of the Family and Children's Ombuds (OFCO) released Monday. The report covers the period Sept 1, 2019 to August 31, 2020 and highlights “systemic issues” plaguing the state’s child welfare system, including issues that have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

“The pandemic has created financial hardship and stress on many families, creating an environment that may result in higher rates of child maltreatment,” wrote Patrick Dowd, the ombuds, in a cover letter attached to the report. “Children, however, are isolated from their communities and reports of abuse or neglect to Child Protective Services have fallen.”

Following the abrupt end to in-person classes in March, calls to Child Protective Services plummeted 42 percent, according to the report. The numbers have since come back up, but not to pre-pandemic levels.

“The bottom line is a lot of these children are not being seen by teachers, by school nurses, by counselors,” Dowd said in an interview. “And that’s had an impact on individuals having an eye on children and assuring child safety and reporting concerns to child protective services.”

The report warned that cases of child abuse and neglect are likely going unreported, and noted that studies have shown child abuse and domestic violence increase after a natural disaster.

At the same time, Dowd’s office has observed another alarming trend – a 20 percent increase over the last year in the number of nights foster youth have spent in hotel rooms and child welfare offices because of a lack of placement options.

This is an issue the OFCO has been reporting on since 2015. In that first year, there were 120 so-called “placement exceptions.” By 2019, that had risen to 1,500. For 2020, the number of nights that youth spent in out-of-home settings climbed above 1,800. Dowd attributed this spike, at least in part, to some foster parents being reluctant to take new youth because of COVID-19. In King County alone, the Department of Children Youth and Families (DCYF) reported that 30 percent of foster homes were not accepting new youth because of COVID.

About 200 youth with complex behavioral and mental health needs account for the majority of those hotel and office stays – mostly in King County and on the Olympic Peninsula. Within that group, the report identified 24 youth who spent 20 or more nights in an out-of-home setting. One youth spent 126 nights in a hotel or office. As in previous years, Black children were overrepresented in the group.

“It’s just one more example of the disproportional impact on children and families of color in our child welfare system,” Dowd said.

While the ultimate goal is to end overnights in hotels and offices, Dowd recommended that in the meantime DCYF change its policies to make the experience less disruptive. For instance, the report said, DCYF’s current policy is to require the youth to pack up and move out of their hotel room each day.

Instead, the report recommended the youth be able to stay in the same room from night to night until they have an appropriate placement. Additionally, the report recommended DCYF stock its offices with healthy foods so that the youth aren’t just eating fast food and create dedicated office space where the youth can do their school work.

In a statement, DCYF Secretary Ross Hunter acknowledged the increase in hotel stays calling them “penny-wise and pound-foolish.”

“For several years in a row OFCO has rightfully excoriated DCYF about a growing problem children and youth in our care face – hotel and office stays,” Hunter said. “I share Patrick’s concern and can assure you that it has our full attention.”

Hunter said his department plans to release a detailed report later this month on efforts to address the hotel stay problem. Among the steps the agency is taking is the creation of 15 new therapeutic foster care beds that are expected to be online by the first quarter of 2021.

Additionally, Hunter noted the Legislature recently increased the rate paid to providers of Behavioral Rehabilitation Services (BRS) and the creation of a new category of care called BRS+. But Hunter cautioned that “a number of additional resources” are still needed to resolve the problem.

During the September to August timeframe, the OFCO investigated 821 complaints about more than 1,200 children and sustained 67 adverse findings against DCYF.

Dowd said among the complaints this year was that families seeking to reunify with their children often couldn’t have in-person visits because of COVID, leading to concerns about delays in getting families back together.

“If these visits have been adversely impacted by the pandemic, then my fear is that could also have an impact on timely family reunifications,” Dowd said. He praised DCYF for its efforts to get devices into the hands of families so they could partake in virtual visitations.

Since May, DCYF has allowed some in-person visits to resume along with in-person health and safety checks which were also largely suspended early in the pandemic.

Another issue highlighted by the report is the fact youth aging out of the foster care now face additional challenges finding stable housing, jobs and educational opportunities because of the pandemic.

Other challenges wrought by the pandemic include COVID outbreaks in congregate care settings, including one that forced DCYF to turn one of its offices into a quarantine space. Foster parents have also felt the strain of having their foster kids at home during the day because of the shift to remote learning.

While acknowledging the state faces upcoming budget challenges, the report said foster parents need access to additional supports to help them care for the youth in their homes.

“These supports are especially important as caregivers deal with additional pressures and the risks related to the pandemic and are essential to reducing placement disruption,” the report said.

*This story has been updated.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."