Nowhere Else to Go: Why Kids Are Sleeping in Child Welfare Offices

The rising number of placements into state care is only partially to blame.
by | October 10, 2017
(AP/Jae C. Hong)

Every month, there are kids in Kansas forced to sleep on cots or couches in a foster care contractor’s office because they don’t have anywhere else to stay that night.

One contractor in the state said it had 31 children spend the night in offices in April, though the typical month had fewer than five. Another reported that in the last year, an average of three children per month slept in offices, though it was as high as 15 in June. The numbers represent a small fraction of the children processed by the state’s child welfare system, but they highlight issues that are the result of growing caseloads and diminishing treatment options for kids with behavioral health problems.

“I think there is widespread understanding that our child welfare system in Kansas has a lot of problem areas,” says Kansas state Rep. Linda Gallagher, who helped set up a legislative task force on child welfare this year. “The number of children in foster care has been increasing dramatically over the last three years or more, and they’re not leaving as fast as they’re coming in. It’s putting pressure on the system at every point.”

Nearly 6,900 children are in the custody of Kansas’ foster care system, up 33 percent from five years ago. But the problems in Kansas are not unique.

Nationally, the number of children in foster care increased every year from 2012 to 2015 -- the last year for which national data are available. In that three-year window, 35 states, including Kansas, saw an uptick in their foster care numbers.

It’s not clear why more children are entering foster care, Gallagher says, but parental substance abuse is thought to be one of the reasons. In some states, officials have recently drawn a link between opioids and rising child welfare caseloads.

In the past few years, Arizona, Louisiana, Texas and Washington, D.C., have all used office space as an emergency option to park children when they have nowhere else to sleep. In most cases, the office stays are for a single night, and caseworkers supervise the children.

Kids aren't always sleeping in offices because there's no foster families available, though. It's often because there are no families equipped to handle a child's behavioral health needs. Sometimes these kids need psychiatric treatment, which is even harder to get.

In 2011, Kansas had 17 psychiatric residential treatment facilities with 780 beds for foster youth. Today, it has eight facilities with 272 beds, says Christie Appelhanz, the executive director of Children’s Alliance of Kansas, a nonprofit representing foster care providers. 

A recent change to juvenile justice policies in Kansas may have also exacerbated an already strained child welfare system. Last year, Kansas passed a law that keeps low-level offenders out of juvenile detention.

Juvenile detention "wasn’t the right place for them anyway,” Gallagher says. “They need psychiatric help, and there just aren’t enough community mental health resources to deal with these troubled kids.”

For youth waiting to be moved to a home or treatment facility, "you have to find a placement as secure and safe as possible, and sometimes those end up being [child protection] offices," says Patrick Crimmins, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, which has struggled to place older youths with special needs, such as autism, diabetes, drug addiction and a history of violence against themselves or others.

In some parts of the state, he notes, regional child protection directors use motels instead of caseworker offices.

In January, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott called attention to the state’s child protection agency in his State of the State address, asking lawmakers to approve structural reforms and increase funding. The state has raised its reimbursement rates for foster care providers, and Abbott found nearly $550,000 to increase the availability of emergency shelters and residential facilities so that children would not need to sleep in offices and motels.

The changes “will take time,” says Katie Olse, executive director for the Texas Alliance of Child and Family Services, a nonprofit representing foster care providers throughout the state. “But I’m really optimistic.”

Some positive changes are already happening. In Texas, the monthly number of foster youth waiting at least two consecutive nights for a placement peaked at 84 in May and declined to only nine in September, according to Crimmins.

When the legislative task force in Kansas makes its child welfare recommendations next year, Appelhanz of the Children’s Alliance hopes it includes proposals for in-home family support services so the state doesn’t have to remove children in the first place.

“We’re not investing enough in prevention,” she says. “I think we need to start asking the question of how we keep children safe in their families and not from their families.”

Susan Dreyfus, president and CEO of the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities nonprofit who oversaw child welfare agencies in Washington state and Wisconsin, echoes that sentiment.

“We don’t have a supply problem in child welfare, where we just need more homes. We have a demand problem,” she says. “I hope we put our attention also on what’s bringing them through the front door and what can we do to prevent that or intervene earlier before it requires a removal from the home.”