Charmaigne Jones had to sleep in a social service office when she entered foster care in the 1990’s. But the group homes for foster youth she lived in later didn’t feel like home either.
“Where do you go for Christmas when everyone at school is bragging about how they can't wait to go home and get their mom's cooking or their grandmother's pies?” Jones said. “And you're like, uhhhh, I guess some church will donate whatever to the shelter.”
Jones bounced between 28 foster care placements in her youth. In group homes, she lived with about a dozen other kids she hardly knew, supervised by paid staff. It was a cold environment where she said no one gave you a hug when you accidentally fell down and hurt yourself.
“No one's there to kiss your boo-boos,” Jones said.
Between the start of 2017 and November 28, 215 foster children had to stay in a hotel or office a total of 968 times, according to the Office of the Family and Children’s Ombuds. And Ombuds Patrick Dowd said many of those children had significant behavioral issues.
In October, the Ruth Dykeman Children’s Center in Burien eliminated a program providing 15 beds for foster children with severe emotional needs. Mental health organization Navos reported it was because the state didn’t pay enough to reimburse the cost.
One child from the program temporarily went to a hotel. The others went to foster or group homes, or went to stay with relatives. None ended up in offices, according to the Children’s Administration.
The end of the program will likely put more stress on a foster care system that’s already under pressure from lack of placements for children. But group homes are not seen as an ideal solution either.
Charmaigne Jones now works with foster youth. She had mixed feelings about the closure of the foster care program at the Ruth Dykeman Children’s Center.
“It's going to suck for a lot of young people to not have that stable housing or support, but in another aspect, you know I almost wish that the shelter model was gone,” she said.
The shelter model won’t go away, but it’s not the best, said Ross Hunter, the head of the new statewide Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF), which was created this summer.
“The more you have kids in a group-home setting, the less well they're going to do,” he said. “So you only have them in a group home setting if you absolutely have to.”
Next year, DCYF will take control of the state’s foster care system and the roughly 8,800 foster youth in care. While the state does not have enough places for foster children, Hunter doesn’t want to rely on more group homes. Instead, he wants to prevent kids from needing foster care in the first place.
“We're still going to have a child welfare system,” Hunter said. “We would like to have less of one because we had stronger families and we had kids that were being more successful earlier in their life. And we'd like to reduce the trauma those kids experience.”
That would mean more spending on programs to keep families intact, such as nurse visits for first-time mothers, parenting classes, and mental-health resources for parents.
If the new department is successful at prevention, Hunter said he’ll need fewer foster care placements.
“But in the short run, I need more,” he said.
He needs more foster care placements like Emily and Mary Pico’s home in Tacoma, where on a recent evening, their seven-year-old daughter Kelia was voguing her rendition of a pop song. Kelia came to the Picos' home through foster care when she was eighteen months old. The couple adopted the girl just before she turned four — and they adopted two other children from foster care, too.
Three years ago, the Picos almost closed their doors to foster children.
“We thought that we were done, and we didn't want to do any of it anymore,” Emily Pico said.
Burnout takes many foster homes out of the system. But the Picos tried something different instead: a program called the Mockingbird Family Model that clusters foster families together in a network, like an extended family. The goal is to retain foster families and keep foster youth from having to leave a placement. Now, the Pico’s home is a hub for mentoring others.
Emily Pico said it’s like having a sister in town who is there to support you and watch your children if you need a break.
“For foster parents, it's important to be able to practice self-care,” she said. “And sometimes that means that you need a date night, that you need to be able to go out with your girlfriends, that you just need to be able to have quiet time at home so that you can take that long soak in the tub without knocks at the door saying, ‘Mommy, mommy, mommy!’”
Pico has two open beds for foster youth from other families in the network.
One recent evening, the families were meeting at her house for dinner. The foster parents sat on stools in the kitchen swapping advice, while the kids played and ate enchiladas.
“You just find that kind of loving embrace of family with our homes,” Emily Pico said.
Families in networks like this make up a tiny percentage of all foster families — about 2 percent of families in 2016, according to a forthcoming study of the model requested by the state legislature. The number of networks is growing — but slowly.
Any big changes to the foster care system will depend on more money from the state legislature in a new state budget, and that’s at least a year and a half away.
“This is not an overnight transition,” Hunter said.