Over the course of four years, foster parent Veronica Moody of Kirkland took in babies and children with severe challenges, including drug exposure, extreme tantrums and nightmares, head-banging and third-degree burns.
But that wasn’t the really hard part of the job, the part that drove away Moody and her husband Chris from accepting more kids.
It was Washington state’s dysfunctional foster care system.
“All the problems the state causes, due to lack of resources and lack of training, make our job as foster parents very difficult,” Moody said. “It burns you out.”
The Moodys’ tale is sadly familiar. High turnover among unhappy foster parents is putting more stress on an already strained system and hindering the state’s ability to care for its most vulnerable children. Too often, the state’s program drives away its own foster parents.
InvestigateWest, reporting for KCTS 9 and Crosscut,revealed last month that the number of foster homes has dropped to the lowest point in decades. Without enough private homes for kids who have been neglected or abused, social workers are forced to babysit them in their offices and work overtime watching them overnight in hotels.
The state lost nearly one in five foster homes between 2008 and 2015 as families quit and potential recruits couldn’t be persuaded to sign up. Only 102 of the 1,100 homes that got licensed in 2005 were still accepting kids a decade later. The number of available homes plummeted to about 4,600 last year – more than 1,000 below the typical level.
InvestigateWest interviewed more than three dozen current and former foster parents and social workers, many of whom asked not to be named because they fear retaliation by the state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS), which oversees the state’s foster care system.
Foster parents say they’re being driven away by a state agency plagued by heavy workloads and high turnover. Overwhelmed state social workers often don’t return calls or email, leaving parents feeling unsupported and disrespected. Caregivers say they’re treated like “glorified babysitters” instead of team members. If they complain, they say the state opens trivial investigations or threatens to move the kids.
Many also cite feeling powerless because they have no standing at hearings where judges decide what happens to the kids in their care. The state, in its interpretation of federal directives, prioritizes biological ties above a child’s emotional attachment.
Foster parents also aren’t given enough training to cope with the increasingly more troubled children entering the system who might flip over beds or break windows. When kids need intensive treatment for mental health problems, it’s often unavailable or inadequate. And the disarray — and lack of child care options — makes it hard for working parents to manage their careers.
Moody’s good intentions were worn out by all of that and more.
She watched as the children she cared for suffered in limbo, unsure of where they belonged, while the state bungled dealings with their birth parents. Most of the kids’ cases went through at least four caseworkers as they lived with the Moodys, setting back progress by months each time while the new workers got their bearings and developed new plans. Moody, an intake coordinator for a children’s mental health clinic, said her efforts to advocate for the kids over the years were met with resistance and annoyance by state workers.
The Moodys parented babies into toddlers, some for as long as two and a half years, before the children were eventually placed with a birth parent or relative they’d never lived with before. That lengthy limbo is a common occurrence in Washington, despite federal mandates for states to move to terminate birth parents’ rights and work to find permanent homes for children once they’ve been in foster care for 15 out of 22 months. About a quarter of the children in foster care in 2013 were in the system for at least 30 months, according to data from Partners for Our Children, a joint research effort by DSHS and the University of Washington.
“When you have kids for more than two years, they’re integrated into your family, and they don’t know any other family other than you,” Moody said. “It’s very draining to keep doing that. The state doesn’t take into account the emotional strain that puts on your family, let alone the children.”
The Moodys are trying to adopt a 2-year-old boy they initially cared for as a newborn before he was moved to a friend of his birth mother. He was returned to the Moodys a year ago, but the mother has appealed the termination of her parental rights, and the state Attorney General’s Office has told the family it could be another two years before a determination can be made, due to a paperwork backlog.
“I don’t know if we can handle another two years, knowing there’s a chance something will go wrong and he could be moved again,” Moody said, adding that she and her husband were planning to let their license lapse. “If we weren’t waiting through this pending adoption process, we definitely would be done.”
The costs of turnover
The heavy workloads and relentless turnover of social workers are major factors driving away many foster parents.
Annual turnover is about 20 percent statewide for child welfare workers, and it has reached as high as 30 percent in King County, said Connie Lambert-Eckel, the director of field operations for the Children’s Administration, the agency under DSHS responsible for foster care. That means that at any given time in an office of five workers, four of them must cover for and train the fifth, a process that takes months.
It’s a vicious circle. Turnover among overworked social workers leads to unhappy foster parents, which leads to a shortage of foster homes, which adds to the social workers’ stress and inability to support foster parents.
“If you don’t like a social worker, just wait three months and it’ll change anyway,” said Tom Tyson of Roy, who has adopted one 9-year-old boy out of foster care and is trying to adopt two more who have been with him for about two years. “It must be a soul-crushing job, but it’s tough on the kids and all of us when we’re constantly rotating through social workers.”
West Seattle foster mom Christy Tennant Krispin said seven different caseworkers were assigned over 20 months to two young siblings while she fostered and then adopted them. The state’s inability to keep workers is symptomatic of a major problem with how the department is being run, Tennant Krispin said.
“The social workers are in many cases victims of the system as well,” she said. “You don’t become a social worker because you’re trying to make money; you do it because you care about these kids and are trying to do good. But then the workload, the hours, the expectations — it’s all too much.”
After state Children’s Administration jobs were cut and salaries frozen during the Great Recession, workers fled. Today, many child-welfare employees are brand new and just as unsupported as the parents. While the workers struggle to get up to speed on their cases, the kids suffer as their time in limbo without a permanent home is extended. Social workers are making decisions and representing children in court based on superficial information about the case history, foster parents say.
Overwhelmed caseworkers have neither the time nor the patience left to support foster parents, said Jennifer Strus, the DSHS assistant secretary who heads the Children’s Administration. Some now carry 25 cases or more, which is more than double the nationally recommended number of 12. A 2004 state court settlement set a limit of 18 cases, but that is no longer enforced.
“We demand a Cadillac level of service but we’re funded at more the level of a Pinto,” said Lambert-Eckel, the field operations director for the Children’s Administration. “It’s hard to ask more of the world when you don’t have the resources to support it.”
The caseworkers themselves need to be treated better from the top down and get more support for such a stressful job, said Tanya Copenhaver, a social worker who got a 30 percent pay raise last year when she left the Children’s Administration after almost 15 years to work at a Pierce County hospital.
“Without the staff to make the job manageable, nothing gets better,” Copenhaver said. “When morale is bad, it affects everything you do.”
The low morale seeps through the system, and foster parents feel it keenly, according to the results of an annual DSHS survey released in May. The report said foster parents were “significantly less likely than in the prior year to say that workers listened to their input.” About 29 percent made negative comments about social workers, compared with 31 percent who made positive comments. The rest were mixed or neutral.
“The top three things we hear consistently from parents that are getting out of foster care is that they feel disrespected, they’re not treated as part of the team and there’s poor communication,” said Beth Canfield, who fostered kids for 32 years and co-founded the Foster Parent Association of Washington State, which successfully sued the state to boost reimbursements for fostering. “So many parents say they wouldn’t have become foster parents if they knew this was how they would be treated.”
Some parents drop out because of the time needed to navigate the system and advocate for themselves and their foster kids. Several, including Tennant Krispin of West Seattle, told of driving kids each day to schools they had been attending that were now an hour away, just to make sure they had some continuity in their lives after they entered foster care.
Most working parents don’t have the time to do things like that. And while the state pays for child care for younger kids, it’s not always possible to find day care options nearby. Tennant Krispin left her career in public relations and became a stay-at-home foster — and now adoptive — mom to ferry the kids to all their classes and appointments.
“I don’t know how people who work outside the home do it, honestly,” said Tyson, the Roy resident who’s parenting three 9-year-olds while working from his house. Caregivers must juggle visits from social workers and licensing reviews with trips to various counselors and doctors, to say nothing of the routine care of a child.“It’s a lot of work for the foster parents,” he said.
Biology vs. bonding
Foster parents learn quickly, from the time they enroll in state-required training and licensing, that their interests are the least valued in the system.
Washington law places a high priority on reuniting foster children with their birth families. Placement with a biological relative is always the state’s goal, Strus said. In one case InvestigateWest discovered, the state sent a little boy to live with his birth mother’s estranged half-sister on the East Coast, even though the boy had bonded since birth with his foster family in Seattle.
Former foster parent Linda Shelby has her own anguished tale.
Shelby quit fostering in 2010, when the girl she and her husband had parented since her birth 17 months earlier — and whom they had been told from the beginning they could adopt — was returned to her biological mother, with all communication cut off.
The Shelbys, of Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood, felt powerless. Foster parents believe they know the child best, especially after a long-term placement from infancy. So their frustration is palpable when they discover they have no say in the legal process that determines what happens to that child — and sometimes aren’t even told what the plan is. They also say the state routinely ignores advice from the children’s medical providers when deciding how and where to place them. But there’s no point in getting a lawyer, because foster parents have no legal status.
“It is just crazy that we are 100 percent in charge of caring for this child, but we don’t get to advocate for that child,” Shelby said. “And the state just says, ‘This is the way we do it.’ Well you know what, then, I don’t want to be part of the way you do it.
“It’s like you’re participating in something you know is wrong.”
DSHS acknowledges the inherent conflict.
“It’s hard to say, ‘We want you to take these kids and love these kids, and then we want you to let them go when they’re ready to be reunited with their families,’” said Strus, the foster-care head. “Foster parents are human beings, and they get attached, and it’s hard for them.”
Birth parents argue it’s right for them to have the law on their side. Children who are separated from their biological parents always carry a “lacking piece within them,” said Alise Hegle from the Washington State Parent Ally Committee, which advocates for parents whose kids have been taken away. Foster care has its place, Hegle said, but kids are best served when their biological parents can be helped in remedying the problems so families can be reunited — or can be kept from entering the system in the first place.
Hegle’s experience is personal: She is the biological mother of the little girl the Shelbys parented for the first year and a half of her life.
Shelby said caseworkers put her and her husband on a pedestal for the first year, when they heard only negative stories from staff about Hegle. Then, after Hegle got treatment for her drug addiction and the state decided to return her daughter to her, social workers turned on the foster parents and put the birth mother on the pedestal.
The Shelbys and Hegle didn’t meet until a year after the toddler had been moved, when Hegle discovered they had a mutual acquaintance, who told her the Shelbys longed to see the girl. As they talked through their separate experiences, they realized the state could have lessened the pain by handling the situation differently. Now Hegle and Shelby want to work together to unify birth and foster parents instead of alienating them — even if it’s just to let them pass a journal back and forth during visits — and to provide more support for everyone during transitions.
“My hope and dream is that the child welfare system becomes something with a lot more love and compassion and less penalizing,” Hegle said.
Unprepared foster parents
When family preservation efforts fail, the state has increasingly been placing kids with relatives, turning to foster care only as a last resort. As of January, 45 percent of children taken from their parents were living with a biological relation, up from 31 percent in January 2000. That means the kids who do end up being fostered now are from more challenging situations.
“As the proportion of youth from more difficult backgrounds increases, overall stays in out-of-home care have become longer,” only exacerbating their mental and emotional trauma, according to a Partners for Our Children report.
Foster youth have grown more troubled over the past decade, Strus said, with “kids who are terribly ill with mental and behavioral issues.” Checking children for lice was once a main worry, but now the problems are much more significant, she said. The disruptive behavior — smearing feces, breaking things, threatening foster families and the like — can overwhelm foster parents and turn off potential recruits.
“Kids in foster care don’t come from central casting,” said Adam Cornell, who lived in more than half a dozen foster homes growing up and is now a Snohomish County prosecutor. Foster children have a higher rate of post-traumatic stress disorder than combat veterans, he said.
Those who have experienced and studied the foster-care system say a new approach is needed to handle the most troubled children. Recruiting typical, well-intentioned adults to care for this problematic segment of foster kids is a “failed business model,” said Dee Wilson, who spent 26 years with the Children’s Administration and continues to train agency social workers and work on child welfare issues nationally.
To care for the one-half to two-thirds of foster children who have “definite, sometimes very serious emotional problems,” the state needs to train and pay for special therapeutic foster homes, Wilson said. He advocates paying about 1,000 foster parents to serve as full-time, professional caregivers. The state could also increase support for programs such as the Mockingbird Family Model, in which small groups of foster families receive mentoring and support from a veteran foster parent and each other.
But first it needs to stem the “negative word-of-mouth” from experienced foster parents that makes it much harder to enlist new ones.
Angry, anguished foster parents are the biggest turnoff to potential recruits, said Canfield, the foster parent advocate. She gave numerous examples of foster families who felt they had been wronged by the state and aired their nightmare experiences with friends as they grieved. The trauma then rippled through the families’ social circles, hampering recruitment. Dan Hamer, who oversees foster and adoptive support services at Overlake Christian Church in Redmond, calls it a “one-by-one strike” by foster parents who quit and tell their friends not to sign up.
Karly Leib has seen that situation play out over and over again. Leib and her husband began fostering in 2010. She has led a foster-care support group since 2012 and worked for a private agency in Tacoma for two years, recruiting foster parents.
The Leibs took in one boy when he was two days old and parented him, along with their three biological children, for two and a half years until the state sent him back to his birth mother. They went on to take in two siblings who had been removed from their birth parents at ages 2 ½ and 6 months. The children had been shuffled through three foster homes before a trial return to their parents failed and the kids ended up with the Leibs, who went on to adopt them. The Leibs have spent the past three years trying to help them heal from the trauma of the instability, with its emotional and behavioral impacts.
Their own experiences and the never-ending tales of others finally did Leib in, and she quit her recruiting job — reluctantly.
“I couldn’t bear the stories of the sheer incompetency and, in my mind, criminal negligence on the part of the state toward these kids, who are dependent on the state,” Leib said. “I thought, ‘How do I ask people to get involved in such a ridiculously broken system?’ And yet, the kids — it’s not the kids’ fault that their parents abused them and abandoned them and that they were born drug-affected.”
Leib now sees her role as supporter and advocate for foster parents and children. She has spoken before legislative committees in Olympia and DSHS groups, but she said it has felt like talking to a brick wall. Door after door has shut, she said.
“If enough people in Washington knew, and there was pressure put on the state, maybe something would change,” Leib said. “This affects our entire state, because these kids don’t live in a bubble. They’re in our schools, they grow up and are in our society, on our streets, in our prisons.
“These are our kids,” she said. “It’s not just somebody else’s problem.”
Robert McClure contributed to this report.
InvestigateWest is a Seattle-based nonprofit newsroom producing journalism for the common good. Please help support this effort at www.invw.org/donate.
This reporting was supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.
Allegra Abramo is a freelance reporter whose writing and photos have appeared in ProPublica, NBCNews.com, Seattle Weekly, and other local and national publications.
Susanna Ray has been a journalist for two decades, covering politics, government, the military, business and aviation for major news organizations in the United States and Europe. She is currently based in Seattle.
Robert McClure is co-founder and executive director of InvestigateWest. At the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Robert exposed a major weakness in the Endangered Species Act and deficiencies in Puget Sound restoration efforts. His reporting on hard-rock mining won the John B. Oakes Award for Distinguished Environmental Journalism.