There was a kid they called Peanut at the Child Protective Services office in Bellingham.
“He spent a lot of time with social workers, just going around the office,” recalled Alex Fitzstrawn, a supervisor here. Peanut also slept on the couch in the office.
Finding foster homes for kids can take days. Which means that social workers take turns watching the kids for half an hour or 45 minutes.
“They run around in huge circles, in and out of cubicles,” Fitzstrawn said. “You’re filing dependencies, you’re going to court, you’re doing a lot of work, and it is not easy necessarily to be caring for a 2- or 3-year-old through that time as well.”
Peanut and his sister ended up at a place called Skookum House. It’s a new kind of temporary foster care home. Kids can stay there for up to 72 hours until social workers find them a more permanent home.
The state Legislature authorized this kind of group home care in 2013. Skookum was one of the first places to open up, but there are only two other houses like it in Washington state.
Skookum looks like any other house in its cozy Bellingham neighborhood, with flowers by the doorstep and a swing set in the backyard.
Ray Deck, who directs Skookum, said it buys time for social workers so they can make a decision about the place for the child.
“When you’re entering foster care, that’s a big, giant bowl of mystery,” Deck said. “‘How long am I going to stay here? When can I see my mom again? Is my mom all right?’
“We get to show kids that being in foster care isn’t scary,” he continued. “Giving kids a really fun weekend for their first weekend in foster care sets the tone and calibrates their expectations about what the future’s going to be.”
On a recent morning, two sisters, ages 7 and 11, ate breakfast together. After they ate, they were drawn to a dollhouse in the corner where they stood whispering to each other and fingering the little furniture and tiny toy pets.
The kids sleep in bunk beds with homemade quilts. They’re fed home-cooked meals, taken to doctor appointments and to the playground. To a doughnut shop, or maybe ice cream.
Only 10 percent of Skookum’s funding comes from the state. It runs mostly on donations.
A hundred and thirty volunteers work here. SaraAnn Evans is one.
“One child had spent the majority of their time in a vehicle,” Evans said. “That’s how they lived. That’s where they slept. And this child was intense energy. We just played along. That’s right – that’s what we get to do. We get to play. I don’t really have to parent. I get to play and have fun.”
Evans was once in foster care herself as an infant and was later adopted. She’s a full-time mother of three so she feels for these kids – how they need to jump on comfy couches and build pillow forts.
“As a mom, if I can just give them comfort and that safety and a fun time and yummy food then that’s what I can give these children,” she said.
These kids face huge problems. Ninety percent are victims of neglect. They’ve operated without the support of parents. Their focus has been on surviving.
Said Deck, “If you’re spending all of your emotional energy and your physical energy keeping yourself alive and keeping the people around you alive, you’re not spending that time learning how to make friends or learning your times tables or learning fractions.
“The only way to resolve it is for kids to have a safe place where they’re cared for and allowed to be children.”
And there’s more, according to social worker Fitzstrawn.
“There are a lot of children that have attachment disorder concerns,” he said. “We have children within minutes calling social workers mom or dad because they never had that bonding.”
Fitzstrawn said he could use five just in Whatcom County. Until that happens, there’s a small fleet of battered strollers in the Bellingham offices where he works – and social workers taking turns wheeling kids around the cubicles.
As for Peanut and his sister, they were removed from a home where meth dealing had taken place. The walls had tested four times the safe levels for meth. Staying at Skookum gave social workers the time to find Peanut's grandparents, where he went to live. His sister went to live with her dad.