Isla Perez entered the custody of Georgia’s child welfare system at the age of 10. It happened after her father was deported and her mother left her and her brother alone in their home for two weeks, she said.
Perez estimates he has moved more than 20 times between group homes, mental health facilities and foster families.
“Many foster parents didn’t know how to deal with my anger problem or my depression,” Perez, now 18, said in an independent lifestyle program in Dahlonnega, Georgia.
About a dozen of these placements came during his stay at a budget hotel, one of which was as recent as last year, when staff from the State Department of Family and Child Services tried to find him a more permanent home where he felt comfortable, he said.
“I knew once I was in a hotel: ‘Okay, I’ll be here for at least a week or two until DFCS magically finds me another placement, and then I’ll be back to the hotel in about two. Or three weeks. ‘
Like Perez, foster children across the country – with many complex mental, behavioral and physical health needs – end up wandering into their state’s child welfare system and landing in temporary placements such as hotels and county or state offices. The practice is known as “hotelling”.
These children have already faced severe challenges, their parents have left them voluntarily or removed them from their homes due to abuse, neglect or abandonment. Child welfare advocates say closing additions add to the trauma of temporary placement.
Children end up in hotels and offices for many reasons, including a lack of foster parents with training and support for taking on high-demand children and a lack of community-based support services for families.
Long-term solutions have been difficult to find. States such as Washington, West Virginia, Texas, Oregon, and Georgia have for years sought to keep foster children in less-than-ideal living conditions.
There is no nationwide count of how many foster children sleep in a hotel or office. But state-level reports indicate that the Covid-19 epidemic has worsened the situation. Child welfare organizations faced the same staff shortages that hit healthcare facilities. Foster families are reluctant to adopt children because of higher concerns about the spread of the disease. States have removed dollars and workers in response to public health emergencies.
“The growing placement crisis has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 epidemic,” Patrick Dowd, director of the Washington State Family and Children’s Ombudsman’s Office, wrote in a recent report. It noted that 256 children spent a total of 2,535 nights in hotels or offices from September 2020 to August 2021.
In Texas, an independent, court-appointed panel found that the number of children placed in office, hotel and unlicensed facilities increased by 152% in the first half of last year. Since then, the panel has said, “it has been slowly declining but the larger size has remained.”
A big challenge is finding parents who are ready to pick up children when they are out of inpatient treatment, said Gwen Skinner, who runs residential facilities serving foster children in Georgia and Florida, who owns nonprofit Diverex Advanced Behavioral Health, Serves autism, anti-depressive disorder and schizophrenia.
“You need to have well-trained foster parents, especially if they are going to deal with children who are deeply in need of behavioral health – children who end up in hotels,” he said.
In two metro Atlanta counties, Fulton and DeCallab, temporary placements are on the rise, according to a recent report by court-appointed monitors.
“There was an increased challenge, mainly with young people over the age of 14, frequent and long-term in the county office,” the report said. Monitors counted 31 offices over 24 hours and 16 over five days. The longest recorded is 686 days.
By mid-May, Georgia’s Division of Family and Children’s Services said the number of babies in temporary placements had risen to about 70, up from 30 before the onset of the epidemic.
“Many providers – foster families, kinship and group home facilities – had to limit the number of children they could serve due to personal health concerns or the COVID-19 staff challenge,” said Candice Bros., Georgia Human Services Commissioner – DFCS’s parent agency. A statement said
He said the agency had provided temporary staff to help solve the problem. State legislators set aside $ 31.4 million in the budget to pay for foster parents, child placement agencies and relatives of children who care. DFCS recently offered a one-time payment of $ 5,000 to providers who pick up children from hotels or offices.
Bros. argued that the extra money would be a better deal for Georgia than to cover the “wonderful” cost of keeping foster kids in a hotel in the end. He estimates that it costs about $ 1,200 per day to arrange meals and accommodation, and often pays for more than one staff member for each child.
Service providers and advocates say the extra money will help but will not solve the problem.
“I don’t care if you give a foster parent $ 500 or $ 100 – it’s their level of skill or they can’t do better. They need support, “said Sally Buchanan, CEO of Creative Community Services, a nonprofit in Norcross, Georgia.
Buchanan specializes in finding a home for children who have multiple placements in the foster system – sometimes up to 20, he said. Many have not received adequate treatment for mental or behavioral health conditions. But even his nonprofit has limited ability to help.
“It’s a fantastic desperate situation, to be perfectly honest,” Buchanan said.
Some of these children have ended up living with Joyce Martyrs in Fayetteville, Georgia. She estimates that she has raised more than 100 children since 2007. Some of them came to him from hotels or offices.
“Many of them come with a lot of behavior. And you just have to figure out what this baby needs, ”he said.
If states take fewer children into custody, fewer will end up in hotels, says Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform. Creating a social safety net and making it easier to access those support services can keep some families together, he said.
“Bring the kids who don’t need upbringing – and bring them back to their own homes,” Wexler said.
KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that creates in-depth journalism about health issues. KHN is one of the three major operating programs of KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation), including policy analysis and polling. KFF is a non-profit organization that provides health information to the nation.
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