Foster kids sleeping in offices, hotel rooms because there’s no other option | Why, and what can be done?

ROANOKE, Va. – Foster Care: Kids in Crisis is a 10 News investigation looking into several aspects of the Virginia foster care system.

A crisis we’ve never seen in Virginia. Foster children sleeping in offices and hotel rooms because there’s no other option. In a 10 News investigation, we’re working for you to find out why it’s happening and what can be done to solve the issue.

“While children are waiting for us to find a placement, they stay in this room. And the sofa is where we’ve had children actually sleep while we’re furiously trying to find the right home for them,” said Andy Crawford, the Bedford County Director of Social Services as he walked us into the room.

Crawford said he’s never seen it this bad.

“It’s really stressful for everyone. Because if you’re a child, and you’re having to sleep at the Department of Social Services, then you know that we don’t have anywhere else for you to go. So when a child looks at you and says ‘Have you found anybody who will take me yet?’ That’s devastating,” said Crawford.

But that’s the reality for children of all ages across Virginia.

Last year, from February through July, 163 youth were displaced for at least one night — spending time in offices, hotel rooms, or emergency rooms while waiting for a permanent place to go.

The Virginia Department of Social Services began collecting data again at the beginning of this year.

From Jan. 1 to April 29, 22 children were displaced for a total of 103 nights. The longest period of time for one child was 21 days.

“The lack of awareness of this issue is surreal,” said Allison Gilbreath, Voices for Virginia’s Children Policy and Programs director, who shines a light on what’s happening in the foster care system. “I would say previously, in Virginia, we never really saw situations where kids couldn’t find some sort of placement. We’ve had group homes or congregate care settings that could take them. And we even had the Commonwealth Hospital, which is a psychiatric hospital for kids in Virginia, where really kids with extreme needs could at least go there.”

Handy is also part of the Safe and Sound Task Force. The group of more than 70 people is working to find homes for all the hard-to-place kids in the short term. She’s also been on the rapid response team calls.

“He will bite you, or pull your hair, or he will punch you. And so DSS social workers have been living with him for months in their agency,” said Handy, talking about one of the harder-to-place children.

“There have been long-standing issues in foster care. I think what everyone is seeing right now is that the pandemic, sort of like every other system, it shed light on cracks, and then it made those cracks deeper,” said Gilbreath.

A crisis we've never seen in Virginia. Foster children sleeping in offices and hotel rooms because there's no other option.

She says there are fewer foster parents, an increase of kids coming into care, and an increase in kids with a mental health crisis.

“So all of those things are bubbling up at the same time, and we’re seeing this crisis right now,” said Gilbreath.

By July 1, the goal is to have every child placed somewhere. But once they all find homes the work can’t stop because more will come along. That’s why they’re moving on to phase two and three, to find solutions to what’s caused this problem to begin with.

“It will not be fixed overnight because it wasn’t created overnight. It is systemic issues that have been across the board and so I think that it’s going to take an investment on everyone’s part,” said Handy.

Everyone stresses this is not a foster care crisis, it’s a mental health crisis. Beds that have been used as temporary placements in hospitals or other settings, are now being taken up by children who need mental health care.

There have been two days recently where there were no children displaced.

We talked to more than half a dozen people for this story. Here is some info on the task force, rapid response team and next steps.

History of the Safe and Sound Task Force

Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin launched the Safe and Sound Task Force April 1. Janet Kelly, the Governor’s Special Advisor for Children’s Issues is leading the team of 70.

“These cases are really complex. And so in creating this task force, I think Governor Youngkin has created a space where these cases can be analyzed in the right way and solved in the right way and that has never happened before in Virginia,” said Kelly.

What is the rapid response team?

A group of people who meet as needed to talk about a hard to place child. It can include state agencies, state leaders, the local department of social services, and private providers.

“A lot of people are at the table. That is a fete. That is an accomplishment to get at the state level. All these agencies that need to be there that can say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to major decisions around the table,” said Eric Reynolds, Director of the Office of the Children’s Ombudsman. “We’ve got these state level people around the table, finally, breaking down some of these silos. Because, forever it’s always been well, ‘it’s a DSS kid’, or ‘that’s a school’s kid’ or ‘that’s a CSBs kid’. And you know, these are all our kids, and we all touch them in some way. All our agencies, all our services, touch these kids in some way. So we all need to be around the table to think outside the box and that’s exactly what’s been happening.”

“We spent 20 hours just last week and we went through every single kid that we were tracking, and their case, and we took a kid centric approach. We had providers on the phone, the people who can treat children with significant mental health needs,” said Kelly. “In a lot of cases, you can see some some pretty quick and surprising results.”

What does the time table look like moving forward?

Have all children in a placement by July 1 and not sleeping in offices, hotel rooms or emergency departments.

“We didn’t get here overnight. This high acuity crisis didn’t happen overnight and certainly the solutions are not going to come overnight,” said Kelly. “The second that child finds a bed, it’s not over. You have to keep working on that case and keep working upward toward that kids finding a true sense of permanency and belonging.”

We asked Kelly if the Governor is prepared to put executive orders in place or put money behind things to do what’s necessary to fix the issues and she said “The governor is committed to mental health reform in Virginia. I think we’re still developing what that looks like specifically. He sees this as part of a bigger problem and he and the Secretary are committed to doing what it takes to reform the mental health system in Virginia.”

From July-December 2022, the task force will move to phase two, where they will try and keep kids from getting to the point where they cannot be placed and have to stay in offices or hotel rooms.

Then in January 2023-2025, they will work to address the systemic challenges that may include policy changes at the General Assembly level.

“The one thing that keeps coming up as a constant thread and a constant need in Virginia is the need to support kinship families better. Those are the grandparents, aunts, uncles, coaches, teachers who care for kids that they may not have given birth to but they have some sort of attachment to. Science, all the latest studies show that that is what it’s best and ideal for kids,” said Kelly. “We need to do more to support those families if we’re going to ask them to take on a kid with significant trauma. We need to do better and support them in that request.”

You can now file a complaint online with the Office of the Children’s Ombudsman about a child-serving agency, such as the local Department of Social Services, or a licensed child-placing agency with regard to children who have been abused or neglected, or who are receiving child protective services or in foster care. Reynolds says within 24 hours, you’ll receive an email or a phone call asking for more information about your complaint.

You can find contact information and the online complaint form on the Office of the Children’s Ombudsman website here.

You can see the story and interview we did with Reynolds earlier this month about the official launch of the office here.

About the Author

You can see Jenna weekday mornings at the anchor desk on WSLS 10 Today from 5-7 a.m. She also leads our monthly Solutionaries Series, where we highlight the creative thinkers and doers working to make the world a better place.

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