National Center for Youth Law

Press Releases

Youth in Washington Foster Care Sue State for Policies that ‘Essentially Rendered them Homeless’

Federal lawsuit calls on the state to stop warehousing children in hotels, state offices and dangerous out-of-state facilities and to provide them with the support and services they need to return to their families.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
January 28, 2021

Seattle, WA – On any given day, the state of Washington is denying hundreds of vulnerable foster children 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 being 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, according to a federal class-action lawsuit filed today.

According to the lawsuit filed on behalf of three named plaintiffs, hundreds of similarly situated foster children, and Disability Rights Washington, the state Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) is shuttling children with behavioral health and developmental disabilities from hotels to state offices to other one-night stays, “essentially rendering them homeless for extended periods of time.”  Other youth end up in institutions, some of them hundreds of miles from their families in non-therapeutic facilities that further traumatize them.

Far from ensuring children and families experience support and healing, DCYF’s practices, according to the suit, are “re-traumatizing children, destroying their ability to bond with and trust adults, interrupting delivery of mental health care, disrupting educational attainment, and extinguishing any hope that children and their families will have the long-term stability they need and deserve.”

The suit, D.S. v. DCYF, was filed in the U.S. District Court by Disability Rights Washington, the National Center for Youth Law, and Carney Gillespie PLLP.  The defendants are DCYF and Ross Hunter, the department’s secretary.

“These children, among the state’s most vulnerable, are being deeply harmed by short-sighted and inhumane practices,” said Susan Kas, attorney, Disability Rights Washington.  “It’s time the state stepped up to its constitutional, legal and moral responsibilities and provided these children the chance to grow up being cared for and nurtured by their own families.”

The disturbing experiences of the named plaintiffs demonstrate the shocking disregard DCYF has shown for their wellbeing while in foster care, according to the lawsuit:

  • Plaintiff D.Y., 13, diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other behavioral health disorders, was removed from his mother in 2016 and has been placed in 30 different foster or group homes across the state. He has also been placed in hotels or DCYF offices 20 times, for stays that lasted one to two nights, a week, or nearly two months.  He wants to return home but is being kept in a group home where he is isolated from his family and segregated from his community.
  • Plaintiff H.A, 16, has been in 15 foster care placements, including institutions in Idaho, Tennessee, and Utah, during his five years in DCYF’s custody. He has also endured extended periods of hotel stays and living in DCYF offices.  Although his current permanency plan is to return home, he is not receiving services to facilitate reunification with his family.
  • Plaintiff D.S., 16, entered DCYF care in 2020. She has not had a stable placement since April 2020 and is currently cycling between one-night stays, hotels and DCYF offices.  During this time, she has struggled to obtain essentials, such as adequate nutrition, access to her medication, education, and connection to her family.  S. hopes for placement in a supportive family home and continued contact with her family, but DCYF is making no progress towards stability, let alone permanency, for D.S.

DCYF is designated as the state’s child welfare agency responsible for delivering and coordinating services for children and their parents.  The failures alleged in the lawsuit violate the rights of foster children with disabilities under the United States 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.

“The state’s disregard for the needs of our clients and other foster children with disabilities is as unlawful as it is heartbreaking,” said Leecia Welch, Senior Director, Legal Advocacy and Child Welfare at the National Center for Youth Law.  “When the very system designed to protect and heal children instead causes them harm, exacerbates their trauma, and unnecessarily keeps them separated from their families, systemwide change cannot come fast enough.”

###