Class-Action Lawsuits Spur Major Reform for Foster Youth in Kansas, Washington
Thousands of children in foster care are routinely denied the most fundamental and basic of rights owed when a child is placed in government custody: a place to live and the support and services needed to return home. After experiencing the trauma of being separated from their families, far too many foster children are forced to endure the daily government-induced trauma of placement instability so extreme they don’t even know where they will sleep from one night to the next.
The National Center for Youth Law has worked to correct these injustices, notably with a pair of federal class-action lawsuits.
NCYL has filed legal actions aimed at reforming the foster systems in Kansas and Washington state. The filings are resulting in fundamental changes to help support youth in state care.
Here’s a closer look at these key cases:
NCYL is among the co-counsel that represent Kansas foster children in a class-action lawsuit — M.B. v. Howard (originally M.B. v. Colyer) — challenging Kansas’s failure to protect the safety and well-being of children and youth in the custody of the Kansas Department for Children and Families (DCF).
Among the key issues raised in the complaint was that Kansas lacks adequate housing for children in the state’s care, leaving these children vulnerable to severe housing disruptions. This has subjected foster children to needless moves, with some children having moved more than 100 times during their time in foster care. It has also frequently subjected children to night-to-night or short-term placements. In a repetitive, destabilizing cycle, children have been regularly forced to sleep for a night or several nights anywhere a bed, couch, office conference room, shelter, or hospital bed can be found.
DCF’s practice of extreme housing disruption has inherently deprived children of basic shelter and effectively rendered them homeless while in state custody.
The suit also alleged Kansas failed to provide children in DCF custody with mental health and behavioral health screening, diagnostic services, and treatment, including trauma-related screening and diagnostic services. The failure to provide mental health services mandated by the Federal Medicaid statute causes, and risks causing, profound emotional and psychological harm to children in foster care.
The suit was settled in 2020. Per the terms of the settlement agreement, approved in 2021, the state has agreed to make the following reforms:
- Practice Improvements: The settlement mandates practice changes that state agencies must make and maintain in order to exit court oversight. These include: ending the practice of housing children in unsuitable places like offices and hotels; ending the practice of night-to-night and short term placements; ensuring that placements are not overcrowded and do not exceed licensed capacity; and ending housing-related delays in the provision of mental health services.
- Outcomes: The settlement mandates five measurable outcome improvements for children, phased in over 3-4 one-year periods. These include: achieving a low average rate of placement (housing) moves, ultimately 4.4 moves or less per 1,000 days in care; addressing mental health and behavioral health treatment needs for at least 90% of cases; ensuring the current placement is stable for at least 90% of cases; limiting placement changes to one move over 12 months for at least 90% of cases; and providing an initial mental health and trauma screen within 30 days of entering state care for at least 90% of cases.
The settlement also established robust oversight and accountability structures that include multiple stakeholders, including an independent advisory group.
NCYL is among co-counsel representing foster youth in a class-action suit — D.S. v. DCYF — that alleges the state’s Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF) has violated the rights of foster children with disabilities under the U.S. Constitution, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980.
Plaintiffs call 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.
A 2021 court order compelled the state to take the first steps toward the needed changes by curbing Washington’s dangerous exceptional placement practices.. Among the reforms outlined in the order: The state developed a plan to terminate hotel and office stays for youth; foster youth can no longer spend nights in vehicles; and foster youth must be placed in state offices only as a last resort and be provided with bedding, age-appropriate activities, and healthy food. Any incidents of foster youth staying in hotels longer than 10 consecutive days are subject to review by DCYF officials.
The Washington and Kansas filings promise real change for young people in foster care settings and NCYL is committed to ensuring these reforms are upheld.