Youth experiencing foster care achieve academic outcomes significantly below their peers. Less than 50 percent of youth in foster care nationwide graduate from high school on time due to trauma, frequent transitions and loss. As a result, studies show they experience high rates of homelessness, incarceration and early parenting, costing our country about $7.8 billion annually.
At Treehouse, we work to disrupt these trends through our educational programming and legislative advocacy. Thanks to the investments made by our generous community and the Legislature, the commitment of our dedicated Treehouse Graduation Success team and the incredible resilience and determination of our youth, 119 high school seniors in our program graduated on time in 2019. We also served 20 percent more youth than the previous year in more than 60 additional schools as a result of our continued growth statewide. We’re committed to partnering with youth after graduation to ensure they go on to achieve a college degree or other career credential, a living-wage job and stable housing at the same rate as their peers.
Despite this work, there are certain issues that can be addressed only by the state Legislature.
At Treehouse, we work at the crossroads of two government systems: the child welfare system and the public school system. In many ways, these systems attempt to take on the responsibilities that a parent would. Unfortunately, systems make for poor parents. When issues impacting youth in foster care arise, they must be resolved swiftly and with great care.
Last year alone, 282 children and youth spent 1,514 nights in hotel rooms or Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF) offices. We can and must do better.
Due to a lack of appropriate placements for children and youth with high behavioral or mental health needs, they are being placed in these and other emergency night-to-night settings. High caseloads and caseworker turnover both compound the problem. DCYF is dedicated to resolving these issues, but there are critical investments they need from our state Legislature in order to be successful. It starts with more DCYF caseworkers. They are our first responders to child abuse and neglect. The caseworker is by far the most critical investment that the Legislature can make in the success of families and safety of children in the foster care system.
Forty-three percent of DCYF caseworkers have caseload sizes exceeding 20 or more, with some as high as 30. Best practice recommends no more than 15. Large caseloads lead to poor case management, high turnover of staff and foster parents, lower rates of family reunification and increased length of stay in foster care. Under the Braam v. Washington lawsuit settlement, DCYF is required to maintain caseloads of no more than 18 youth per worker. Treehouse is asking the Legislature this session to fund DCYF’s request for at least 20 additional caseworkers to help mitigate these high caseload sizes. Smaller caseloads will mean more stability for children and youth in foster care and a better opportunity for them to thrive as contributing members of our communities.
Safe and stable foster placements and increased capacity for DCYF’s adolescent program are both line items in the supplemental budget before the House and Senate (HB 2325 and SB 6168). Unfortunately, the funding for caseworkers was not included in this year’s budget. We are hopeful that, with 2021 being a full-budget year, the Legislature will be able to meet even more of the need then.
Washington is facing a crisis for adolescents in foster care, particularly for youth with high mental and behavioral needs. Caseworkers place children and youth in hotel rooms and offices only when they are left with no other alternative. Most of the time, the placements are for youth who exhibit the most extreme behaviors that come from their experiences of abuse, neglect and complex trauma. Washington must be better equipped to meet their needs by increasing safe and stable placements, in both the number of beds and paying the full cost of programs like therapeutic foster care and residential behavioral treatment centers. In addition, we need to professionalize a small pool of highly skilled foster parents so that our young people with the highest needs can be placed in the nurturing environments they equally deserve.
We are inadvertently sending young people the message that they are unloved and unwanted. Again, we can and must do better. If caseload sizes were reduced to allow caseworkers the capacity to provide thorough care instead of triage, and we had appropriate and sufficient alternatives to hotel rooms for youth exhibiting extreme behaviors, we could start to send a message — one of hope and possibility.
Be a voice for youth in foster care: Visit www.treehouseforkids.org/advocate.
Dawn Rains is Treehouse’s chief policy and strategy officer and has been with the organization since 2009. She has more than 25 years of experience in nonprofit management, fund development and legislative advocacy. She is also a former foster parent.
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