SEATTLE — On a late January night last year, a 9-year-old boy woke up at 4 a.m. in the back seat of his social worker’s parked car.
The boy was “agitated because he didn’t want to sleep in the car and didn’t have his blanket,” according to a state document obtained by KING 5.
Because of a shortage of foster parents and intensive therapeutic homes, Washington foster kids have spent thousands of nights in hotel rooms and offices when the state doesn't have another place to put them. But on that January night, the state made a choice not to provide the boy with a hotel bed.
“I did explain to him that we have to be on our best behavior to stay in hotel rooms,” the social worker wrote.
The boy went back to sleep in his social worker’s car, parked outside a Washington Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF) office until around 9 in the morning. The social worker bought the boy a McDonald’s breakfast sandwich, and he pointed out the child had “no issues listening” because he knew “his treats would be taken away for non-compliance.”
A four-month KING 5 investigation found a years-long pattern of Washington child protection workers dangling basic necessities like a safe, warm place to sleep as a way to get certain “hard to place” foster children to behave or follow orders. It’s a practice mental health professionals and some of the child welfare agency’s own frontline employees say is further damaging kids who’ve already experienced too much hardship.
"We're dealing with children who are traumatized. Like, I can't emphasize enough how traumatized they are," said Basia Cady, a former Washington social worker who said she stayed with hundreds of kids overnight in hotels, state offices and cars during her four years with the agency. "Why would we punish a kid who has already been punished that much?"
The investigation, which is based on a review of state and law enforcement records, interviews with foster youth and 25 current and former employees of Washington state’s child welfare agency, uncovered a DCYF culture where “punitive” actions toward some children and teens without placements are not only condoned but encouraged by some department leaders.
“We’re not going to reward their tantrums,” one senior administrator reportedly told staff in December, according to a state whistleblower complaint filed earlier this year.
The six current social workers and 19 former employees who spoke to reporters for this story were assigned to work in child welfare offices across western Washington — from Bellingham to Vancouver. They held positions as social workers, supervisors, placement coordinators and a former security guard, who the department hired to help after-hours social workers watch over some children and teenagers who have destructive or aggressive behaviors. Twenty-two of the past and present workers raised concerns about how the department cares for foster youth without placements, particularly after 5 p.m., when the agency’s most inexperienced social workers are left alone to handle some of the most challenging and troubled kids in the state’s care.
“I didn't think the department dignified these children and youth,” said Jocelyn Ettinger, a former after-hours social worker who worked for the state from 2013 to 2018. “These children were seen as a burden and kind of like cargo.”
The interviews revealed:
DCYF managers withheld hotel beds from some foster kids, and they instructed social workers to make the foster youth uncomfortable with inadequate sleeping arrangements, like in cars without blankets and in state offices without beds. This occurred when the kids acted out or refused to go to a placement at a foster home or group home, according to past and present state workers, a review of internal communication and a current employee’s state whistleblower complaint about a senior DCYF administrator’s actions.
Foster youth assigned to sleep in DCYF offices rarely have access to beds, appropriate bedding or privacy. They've slept on couches, airport-style plastic chairs, cots, deflated air mattresses and on office floors — sometimes with no blankets or pillows, according to state workers and youth who said they stayed overnight in state offices. Reporters also directly observed foster kids sleeping in some of these conditions, as the kids were camped out in DCYF lobbies next to public-facing windows.
Four people, who claimed they supervised foster kids overnight in cars and offices, said their managers encouraged them to use psychological tactics to make the youth miserable. They say they were told to do things like blast air conditioning or turn off the heat to make the youth intentionally cold. One social worker said she was told to lock a teenager out of her state car. Three workers said they were instructed not to allow youth to fall asleep throughout the night.
Andrea Paz, a former after-hours social worker, said a supervisor once demanded her to keep a teenage girl awake in her state car all night outside of a Seattle group home.
"I was uncomfortable with it at the time. I feel guilty because I feel like maybe I could have done something else," said Paz, who left the child welfare agency in 2018. “There’s secondary trauma for the workers as well because you’re not sure what to do.”
After-hours social workers who detailed the department's practices of forcing youth to stay overnight in uncomfortable settings said they were “powerless” within the department, and they never made their own decisions about where foster children would sleep or how they would be treated. The workers said their managers hoped the strategies would persuade the kids to accept their placements.
“It was almost like a manipulative means to have the youth go into their placement by creating pure discomfort,” Ettinger, the former after-hours social worker, said. “There’s no bedding in the car, there’s no pillow, there’s no blanket, there’s no toothbrush, there's no bathroom access.”
Nancy Gutierrez, a DCYF spokeswoman, declined an interview request and did not respond to reporters’ detailed questions about the state workers’ claims and department practices. In a statement, she wrote it’s “not part of DCYF’s practice to have youth sleep in cars overnight,” and she added that state offices have “adequate bedding.” Gutierrez explained there are times when social workers stay in cars with foster children and teens who refuse to accept a placement at a foster home or group home.
"In those situations, our caseworkers will drive the youth to the placement and sit in cars with them to go over how the placement can fit their immediate needs and long-term plans for permanency,” Gutierrez wrote. “That process can take hours, and if the youth continues to refuse, the caseworker will drive the youth to a hotel or an office with adequate bedding.”
Social workers say it’s common for youth in the state’s care to refuse placements for various reasons. For some kids, it’s too much to fathom giving up cell phones, following rigid rules or moving far away from the only friends and family members they’ve ever known. Others turn down placements because they don’t feel safe or because they’ve had negative past experiences in those homes.
A handful of after-hours social workers who transported youth to foster homes and one-night placements said they don't blame kids for refusing to go to some locations because the places had uninviting environments with strict policies that youth didn’t like.
“Sometimes it felt like little jail cells….You had to give them all of your things,” said Cady, the former social worker who left the department last year. “I didn't want to go there. So I wouldn't blame (the youth) for not wanting to go there either.”
Taylor Campbell, a 20-year-old woman in Washington state’s extended foster care program, said as a teenager, she turned down many placements where she didn’t feel comfortable — including one home where she said she was inappropriately touched during a prior stay.
“The state, they take kids from people that do those things. And then to force a child to openly go through a home like that, that was just the turning point for me and I felt I was lost,” said Campbell, who became a ward of the state at age 15.
Minu Ranna-Stewart, assistant director of the Harborview Abuse and Trauma Center, said it sends a harmful message to foster kids when adults force them to go to placements, where the children reported feeling unsafe.
“Telling the child that they have no option? It's just not a good way to go,” Ranna-Stewart said. “What it could potentially do is have damaging long-term effects. They may then develop an unhelpful belief that, ‘It doesn't matter if I speak up. No one will listen or no one will care.’”
Because Campbell turned down so many placements, she said she was branded a “bad kid” with no chance at finding a stable home.
"A lot of the times my social worker would just be like, 'She doesn't deserve to go to a hotel because she's lost so many placements,'" Campbell said.
She said she stayed at nearly 100 different places during her time in foster care, including at least one night sleeping in a social worker’s car and dozens of nights sleeping on plastic chairs in a Pierce County DCYF office, where the lights were kept on all night.
“It was terrible — mentally and physically. You don't have a home, you don't have a family, you don't have a safe place to go to. The state is your family, you know, and they're keeping you either on the floor or in these plastic chairs," Campbell said.
"You start to feel like you're not going to ever find placement, that you aren't wanted, that you don't deserve a home or happiness or a family. Because you already got taken away from yours."
‘Those were the worst nights of my life’
It is impossible to know for sure how often Washington child protection workers have made children spend the night in cars because the state doesn’t track that information. The child welfare agency only tracks stays in hotel rooms and department offices, where nearly 200 foster kids have collectively spent more than 1,400 nights so far this year, according to state data.
Though the department denies it has a practice of making youth sleep in cars overnight, foster youth and people who’ve worked on the frontlines of the child welfare agency tell a different story. Fifteen current and former state workers said they knew the state had made youth sleep in state vehicles, including six people who said they had firsthand experience supervising car stays.
“Those were the worst nights of my life,” said one state social worker. “We would be in the car from about 12 a.m. to 9 in the morning.”
The DCYF employee, who asked not to be identified so he could protect his employment status with the state agency, said he supervised dozens of car stays before moving to a day-shift schedule last year. He explained it was “terrible” to watch troubled kids struggle to find comfort sleeping in his back seat.
“Bouncing around from hotel rooms to cars, not having a stable placement — it made these kids’ behaviors worse,” the worker said. “I feel like the system is hurting these kids more. It’s way worse than some of the scenarios they have come from.”
It’s an opinion shared by other DCYF employees, too.
“It pisses me off that a parent can have their kid taken away for the same thing that we are putting them through,” said a current female after-hours social worker based in Kent, who agreed to speak to KING 5 only under the condition of anonymity. “It’s not healthy. It’s not productive. It’s not safe for the employees. It’s not safe for the kids.”
Some of the six current employees who spoke confidentially with reporters said they agreed to talk because they felt department leaders minimized or failed to address their “serious concerns” about the well-being of Washington foster youth.
“I think DCYF is failing these children,” said one long-time social worker who supervises foster children and teens at night. “Our system is broken, and there’s no safe way for us to communicate this within DCYF. I can’t speak openly and when I have, I haven't been heard.”
‘Not going to reward their tantrums’
Earlier this year, a Seattle-based DCYF social worker filed an anonymous state whistleblower complaint against one senior department leader who allegedly confirmed to dozens of employees that foster kids were sleeping in cars with state workers and on office floors at her direction, according to a copy of the complaint obtained by KING 5.
The whistleblower claimed Tabitha Pomeroy, a DCYF Area Administrator, told employees at a virtual all-staff meeting on Dec. 16 that foster youth were “violent” and getting “the office kicked out of hotels” so she was refusing the youth a place to sleep comfortably.
“She stated she was ‘not going to reward their tantrums by letting them stay in a hotel or on a comfortable couch (in the office),’” the whistleblower wrote. “So when a group home placement or a night-to-night placement was found and a foster youth did not want to go, she was directing staff to not request a hotel and to make the youth sleep in the car or the office until they accept the placement.”
The anonymous employee claimed that others at the meeting were also upset by Pomeroy’s alleged remarks, including some who spoke up to ask questions and others who chimed in with written messages in the Zoom chat. One person pointed out “this was not a trauma informed approach to housing and taking care of foster youth,” the whistleblower wrote, adding that another stated, “it was not appropriate to remove children from their homes for abuse or neglect and then force them to sleep on floors or in cars.”
“An employee asked that if the state would not pay for hotels, could we have beds and blankets and make a room in the office for youth to sleep comfortably. This was ignored,” the whistleblower wrote.
Pomeroy declined to speak with reporters, and she referred questions to DCYF’s communications staff. Gutierrez, the department spokeswoman, didn’t answer questions about the whistleblower’s claims or whether the agency took action after receiving the complaint on Jan. 8.
Sarah Tunning, a Florida-based mental health counselor who has more than 20 years experience working in child welfare, reviewed a copy of the Seattle social worker's complaint at KING 5’s request. Tunning said she was shocked to read the details of the whistleblower’s allegations.
“That is not a trauma-informed response whatsoever....It's continuation of abuse and neglect,” said Tunning, who is also an executive director of the nonprofit One Hope United, which assists foster youth in four states. “This is a system problem. It's not a youth problem. It's a system problem that needs to be fixed by adults."
There’s no question that DCYF after-hours social workers and supervisors are thrust into challenging situations that they work hard to diffuse. They’re faced with managing and finding placements for difficult foster youth who have been known to behave erratically. It’s not uncommon for kids in their care to run away, destroy or throw hotel and office furniture, assault state employees or put the safety of other foster youth at risk, according to a review of law enforcement records and interviews with current and former DCYF employees.
Ranna-Stewart, of the Harborview Abuse and Trauma Center, said she doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with adults using a little “bribery” — or positive reinforcement — to motivate troubled kids to address problem behaviors. But, she said, it is never appropriate to bribe children by withholding access to basic necessities, like a bed.
“If these things are happening, it does definitely raise a high level of concern. They seem to be abusive of control of power,” Ranna-Stewart said. “Access to restrooms, hygiene, food, bedding — these things can't be compromised. It can't be used as consequences.”
Campbell, who now lives in her own apartment in Tacoma, said it's freeing to not have to question each night whether or not she'll sleep in a bed. But she said it keeps her awake knowing there are other foster youth who still have to wonder.
"Sleeping in an an office and sleeping in a car, that's the same thing as being homeless," she said. "I don't want this to keep happening. I know it messed me up, and I know it had a total impact on my life so I wouldn't want another kid in care to go through that."
If you’re interested in becoming a Washington state foster parent, here’s how to contact the Department of Children, Youth, and Families to get more information about next steps.
Taylor Mirfendereski is a KING 5 investigative reporter, who specializes in multimedia storytelling, longform reporting and digital projects. Follow her on twitter at @taylormirf. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org or contact her via Signal at 206-348-4106.