Washington state report notes virus impact on child welfare

SEATTLE (AP) — Foster youth in Washington state have spent more nights in hotel rooms while overall reports of child abuse and neglect declined during the coronavirus pandemic, a report said.

The Washington State Office of the Family and Children’s Ombuds released a report on Monday highlighting the “systemic issues” in the state’s child welfare system, The Northwest News Network reported.

“The pandemic has created financial hardship and stress on many families, creating an environment that may result in higher rates of child maltreatment,” office Director Patrick Dowd said. “Children, however, are isolated from their communities and reports of abuse or neglect to Child Protective Services have fallen.”

The report, which covers from September 2019 to August 2020, found that calls to Child Protective Services dropped by 42% after schools ended in-person instruction.

“The bottom line is a lot of these children are not being seen by teachers, by school nurses, by counselors,” Dowd said. “And that’s had an impact on individuals having an eye on children and assuring child safety and reporting concerns to child protective services.”

Officials warned in the report that cases of child abuse and neglect are likely going unreported. The department also said there was a 20% increase over the last year in the number of nights foster youth have spent in hotel rooms and child welfare offices because of a lack of placement options.

In 2015, the department reported 120 so-called placement exceptions, or the number of nights that youth spent in out-of-home settings, officials said. There were 1,500 in 2019 and 1,800 this year. Dowd attributed the increase in part to some foster parents being reluctant to take new youth because of COVID-19.

Department of Children Youth and Families Secretary Ross Hunter acknowledged the increase in hotel stays, calling them “penny-wise and pound-foolish.”

Hunter said his department plans to release a detailed report later this month on efforts to address the hotel stay problem. Among the steps the agency is taking is the creation of 15 new therapeutic foster care beds that are expected to be operational in 2021.

The report also said that youth aging out of foster care now face additional challenges finding stable housing, jobs and educational opportunities because of the pandemic, officials said. Other challenges include COVID-19 outbreaks and the strain foster parents are under with children at home doing remote learning.

“These supports are especially important as caregivers deal with additional pressures and the risks related to the pandemic and are essential to reducing placement disruption,” the report said.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some — especially older adults and people with existing health problems — it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.