Isla Perez entered the custody of Georgia’s child welfare system at the age of 10. This happened after her father was deported and her mother left her and her brother alone in their house for two weeks, she said.
Perez estimates that she moved between group homes, mental health facilities, and foster families more than 20 times.
“Many foster parents didn’t know how to deal with my anger issues or my depression,” said Perez, who is now 18 years old and in an independent living program in Dahlonega, Georgia.
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He said that among those appointments came about a dozen stays in budget hotels, including one as recent as last year, while state Family and Child Services Department staff tried to find him a more permanent home, where he felt comfortable, she said.
“I knew once I was in a hotel: ‘Okay, I’m going to stay here for at least a week or two until DFCS magically gives me second place, and then I almost I’ll be back at the hotel in two or three weeks.'”
Like Perez, foster children across the country — many with complex mental, behavioral and physical health needs — bounce around their states’ child welfare systems and land in temporary placements such as hotels and county or state offices. This practice is known as “hoteling”.
These children are already facing tremendous challenges, with their parents voluntarily abandoned or thrown out of their homes because of abuse, neglect or abandonment. Child welfare advocates say closure between temporary placements adds to the trauma.
Children have to go to hotels and offices for a variety of reasons, including a lack of foster parents with training and support to pick up children in high need, and a lack of community-based support services for families.
Finding a long-term solution has been difficult. States such as Washington, West Virginia, Texas, Oregon and Georgia have for years resorted to placing foster children in less than ideal temporary living conditions.
There is no nationwide count of how many foster children will be sleeping in a hotel or office. But state-level reports indicate that the disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic have made matters worse. Child welfare agencies faced the same staffing shortages that plagued health care facilities. Foster families were hesitant to have children because of growing concerns about disease transmission. States divert dollars and personnel to fight the public health emergency.
“Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the placement resource crisis has only gotten worse,” Patrick Dowd, director of the Office of the Washington State Family and Children Ombudsman, wrote in a recent report. It noted that from September 2020 to August 2021, 256 children spent a total of 2,535 nights in hotels or offices.
In Texas, an independent, court-appointed panel found that the number of children in offices, hotels and unlicensed facilities increased by 152% over the first half of last year. Since then, the panel said, “there has been a gradual decline but it is quite large.”
A major challenge is finding foster parents ready to take children as they move out of inpatient treatment, said Gwen Skinner, a foster parent in Georgia and Florida who owns the nonprofit Deverex Advanced Behavioral Health. Serve the children, serve the serious children. Autism, oppositional defiant disorder and schizophrenia.
“You have to have well-trained foster parents, especially if they’re going to be dealing with kids who are on the deep end of behavioral health needs — kids who end up in hotels,” she said.
In two metro Atlanta counties, Fulton and DeKalb, temporary placements are on the rise, according to a recent report by court-appointed monitors.
“The challenge of staying in county offices more frequently and for longer periods was heightened, with youth, primarily those over the age of 14,” the report said. 31 offices last longer than 24 hours and 16 longer than five days when counted. The longest recorded was 68½ days.
By mid-May, Georgia’s Division of Family and Children’s Services said the number of children in temporary placements had grown to about 70, up from their 30s before the Omicron wave of the pandemic.
“Many providers — foster families, kinship placements and group home facilities — had to limit how many children they could serve because of individual health concerns or COVID-19 workforce challenges,” said Candice Bros, Commissioner of the Georgia Department of Human Services. DFCS’ parent agency – said in a statement.
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He said the agency has provided temporary staff to help solve the problem. State lawmakers invested $31.4 million in the budget to increase payments to foster parents, child placement agencies and relative caregivers of children. DFCS recently offered a one-time payment of $5,000 to providers who take children out of a hotel or office.
The Bros have argued that the extra money would ultimately be a better deal for Georgia, which she called the “shocking” cost of putting foster children in a hotel. She estimated that it costs about $1,200 a day to cover meals and accommodations, and to pay for multiple staff members, often for each child.
Service providers and advocates say additional funding will help but will not solve the problem.
“I don’t care if you pay a foster parent $500 or $100 — it’s not going to make their skill level or what they can do better. They should have support,” says Creative Community Services Said Sally Buchanan, CEO of Sally Buchanan, a nonprofit in Norcross, Georgia.
Buchanan specializes in finding homes for children who have multiple placements in the foster system — sometimes up to 20, she said. Many people have never received adequate treatment for mental or behavioral health conditions. But even her nonprofit has limited ability to help.
“It’s a very frustrating situation, to be completely honest,” Buchanan said.
Some of those children have moved to live with Joyce Martyr in Fayetteville, Georgia. She is estimated to have raised over 100 children since 2007. Only a few of them have come to him from hotels or offices.
“A lot of them come with treats. And you just have to figure out what this kid needs,” she said.
Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, said if states detained fewer children, there would be fewer in hotels. Creating a social safety net and easing access to those support services can keep some families together, he said.
“Get the kids who don’t need to be in foster care — and go back to their homes,” Wexler said.
KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that conducts in-depth journalism about health issues. Along with policy analysis and polling, KHN is one of the three major operational programs of the KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is a thriving non-profit organization that provides information on health issues to the nation.