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Foster kids sleep in hotels and offices as 15 more beds disappear

caption: Sign for Navos' Ruth Dykeman Children's Center in Burien, Wash.
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Sign for Navos' Ruth Dykeman Children's Center in Burien, Wash.
KUOW Photo/Anna Boiko-Weyrauch

South King County principal Melissa Pointer is worried about her student.

"I tried so many times not to cry,” she said, her voice breaking. “Because when I think about the fact that there's literally 15 days for him and he doesn't know where he’s going to go, that just breaks my heart."

Pointer’s student lives at a group home for foster children, known to many simply as “Ruth Dykeman.”

Mental health care provider, Navos, was providing Behavior Rehabilitation Services (BRS), or round-the-clock care for foster kids with severe behavior problems and emotional needs, at the Ruth Dykeman Children’s Center in Burien.

Navos ended its contract with the state to provide the services at the end of September and extended it to the end of October.

When we talked, as far as Pointer knew, her student had to leave by the end of October. (Since then, Navos said children could stay until November 23.) The end of the foster care program has implications for the state’s already stressed foster care system and could result in more foster children placed out of state or staying temporarily in hotels and offices.

Pointer’s student has endured heavy trauma, she said, but he’s a really special kid.

“He's one of those kids that will barrel right into you for a big hug and every time you see him he has a giant smile on his face. He's just really loving and really wants to be loved,” Pointer said.

Fifteen children will have to leave the BRS program at the edge of Lake Burien, with placid water and long grass bending in the wind. The children live here in cottages with their own room, supervised by staff members with on-call nurses and psychologists.

But the program wasn’t sustainable, CEO David Johnson said.

“For several years we kept subsidizing this program for more than half of what it cost to provide the program. And so, as we thought about long-term viability, we just couldn't continue to do that,” he said.

Navos “anguished” over the decision to close the program, Johnson said. The provider lost “almost $3 million” between 2014 and 2016 by providing the BRS program, according to vice president of development and community relations, Alice Braverman.

In 2014 and 2015, the organization’s tax records show it spent $14 million on construction contractors. In 2016, property records show the organization spent $2 million buying property in Burien.

The construction spending was to pay for new buildings at the Lake Burien campus and other facilities, Johnson said. The new property is to a long-term investment to provide housing for clients at costs that are insulated from the hot rental market.

"It doesn't really make that much difference in our daily operational costs," he said. "As a nonprofit we're securing facilities to provide treatment and to provide housing, and so that's the motive for purchasing and owning.”

The end of BRS services at the Ruth Dykeman center sheds light on bigger, system-wide issues with our foster care system: Washington state doesn’t have enough places for foster children to live. In fact, there are so few placements, children are sent across the border to Idaho and as far away as Iowa and Nebraska.

Around 50 children are placed out of state as a last resort — including some kids from the Lake Burien program, said Children’s Administration acting assistant secretary, Connie Lambert-Eckel.

With more kids coming into foster care all the time, losing this program hurts, said Lambert-Eckel. “It’s absolutely detrimental,” she said.

Besides out-of-state homes, foster kids end up in another place, too.

When Charmaigne Jones, 31, was removed from her family in 1995, she spent the weekend sleeping in the office of the social service agency.

“I don’t know, I watched ‘Little Orphan Annie,’ maybe I thought I was going to go to a rich family,” Jones said. “And I ended up in an office."

She tried to put three or four chairs together to make a bed, but that wasn't very comfortable, Jones said, so she just slept on the floor.

Office stays are rare exceptions, Lambert-Eckels said. More often, foster children sleep in hotels with adult supervision. From September 2016 to August 2017, 195 foster kids slept in hotels or offices over 820 times, according to data from the foster care system’s watchdog, Patrick Dowd.

“Personally, I think it's extremely disruptive, and we're talking about children that are in state care in the first place because they've been subjected to abuse and neglect,” Dowd said of the hotel and office stays, known in agency parlance as “placement exceptions.”

The hotel stays cost approximately $2,104.12 per day, according to Children’s Administration estimates. That includes a security guard and overtime for two social workers.

Meanwhile, the state also reimburses providers of group homes for children with severe emotional needs. Those BRS providers get around eight times less than the cost of a hotel stay: $248.07 per day per child.

Putting kids in hotels and offices isn’t the best, said Lambert-Eckel. “I just don't have any other alternatives at the end of the day when nobody will take a child into placement or where there are no opportunities for the child to go,” she said.

Pointer’s student might end up in hotels — essentially homeless — if there is no appropriate home or facility available for him once Navos stops providing the BRS program at the end of November.

“I can’t even imagine. I can’t even imagine the message that would send to him,” Pointer said. “No one deserves that. Not even the most stable adult would do well in that situation.”

Navos will still serve vulnerable kids in those cottages, according to the organization, but with a different program providing long-term inpatient psychiatric care. The reimbursement rate for that is two to three times higher.

And it’s not a home for foster kids.

As of October 26, 11 children had been moved from Navos, but Pointer’s student and two other children still didn’t have a new place to live.

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