UPDATED: Fourteen children slept in offices and hotels in the last year.
It used to be a rare occurrence.
But in recent months, more Hawaii foster children have been sleeping in Child Welfare Services offices and in hotels as the state struggles to find homes ready and willing to take them in.
Fourteen foster children in the last year have found themselves without anywhere else to go, state officials said. The average age of kids in this situation is 13 to 17, but at least one child was as young as four, according to the Department of Human Services.
It’s a last-resort scenario that is nevertheless better than the street, the agency said.
“We don’t like to do it, but that is the only option,” Social Services Division Administrator Daisy Hartsfield said.
Foster children are already vulnerable, having been given up by their biological families or taken by the state because of neglect or abuse. Living out of a hotel room or office doesn’t provide the stability they need, said Brit Barker, an Big Island attorney who represents foster children as a guardian ad litem.
At least one of her clients slept in a government office.
“The issues the child has seemed to escalate,” she said. “It’s not helping the child. Children need stability.”
Children have been sleeping on futons in government offices on Oahu, Kauai, Maui, and the Kona side of Hawaii Island, according to the Department of Human Services. The hotel stays are occurring only on the Big Island.
In these cases, the children are supervised by two Child Welfare Services division staff members who don’t sleep and are paid an overtime rate, DHS said.
The typical length of stay is two to three weeks, DHS said. The shortest stay was one night and the longest was eight months over the course of “multiple episodes,” the agency said.
Previously, kids occasionally stayed overnight in an office, but those instances amounted to maybe one every six months, according to DHS. Now there’s a noticeable uptick, Hartsfield said.
The troubling trend is occurring statewide and was caused by a confluence of factors, Department of Human Services officials said.
For one, Hawaii doesn’t have enough foster parents. For years, there have been more children in need of placement than there are homes to take them, according to DHS data.
There was a monthly average of 1,555 in foster care but only 1,145 foster homes in fiscal year 2021, the most recent year for which data is publicly available.
Further limiting placement options, troubled youth sometimes "burn" their relationships with foster parents, also called resource caregivers, who feel the foster child has become a safety threat to themselves or their families, Hartsfield said.
"They say: We've tried everything we can. We don't know what else to do, so CWS, take this child," Hartsfield said of the foster parents. "It is a challenge trying to find resource caregivers with the specialized skills that these high-needs children require."
Hartsfield believes the coronavirus pandemic exacerbated those kinds of problems. Kids' access to mental health care was impacted, making it harder for them to process traumatic experiences, she said. Kids are acting out with disruptive and inappropriate behavior, she said, including violence, self-harm, and generally acting "out of control." Some run away.
"We didn't have as many children with the type of mental health issues that we have now," Hartsfield said, recalling her work 10 and 20 years ago. "It's more severe now."
There is also a lack of emergency shelter for troubled youth, and a lack of residential mental health facilities for minors with qualified staff, Hartsfield said.
"So they either do not accept them into their program or discharge them from their program with no other place for these children to go," she said.
Nationally, social service agencies have moved away from congregate settings like orphanages or group homes, opting instead to prioritize placing kids in homes. But when there are no homes, there’s no backup.
"We still have those types of individuals, so how do we serve them now?" Hartsfield said. "Where do they go?"
At the same time, there has been a "collapse" of prevention services for families, said Elladine Olevao, administrator of the Child Welfare Services branch of DHS.
"Our goal is to keep children at home, keep them out of care," she said. "That comes as a result of prevention."
Hartsfield said DHS is working to boost prevention efforts, including partnering with the Department of Education.
The agency is also planning to ask the Hawaii Legislature next year to fund a nursing staff to meet the daily medical needs of foster children who are difficult to place, Hartsfield said.
In addition, the state is working on finding therapists who can provide intensive counseling to youth but has had trouble finding anyone to do the job.
"They can't find any bidders who have the qualified staff," Hartsfield said. "So it's not an issue about money. It's an issue about having the capacity to provide the services that these children need."
Pay for Hawaii's foster parents may be an issue.
The state reimburses foster parents between $649 and $776 per month, per child, depending on their age. Older kids garner higher payments.
Foster parents who take in children with additional challenges get a "difficulty of care" payment up to $570 per month for a potential total between $1,200 and $1,300 a month, according to the 2019 payment breakdown.
With Hawaii's already high cost of living and inflation driving up prices, those payments can get eaten up quickly on housing, food, gas, electricity and other expenses. Clothes are covered by a separate allowance between about $800 to $1,000 per year.
It's not enough, said Madeline Tomasino-Reed, a managing attorney at the Children's Law Project of Hawaii, a nonprofit public interest law firm.
"I don't think resource caregivers are adequately compensated for the work that they do," she said. "And even outside of the financial piece, I think they could use more support."
Department of Human Services spokeswoman Amanda Stevens said she isn't aware of any effort to raise the pay rate for foster parents but Child Welfare Services has increased pay for some on a "case by case basis."
Hawaii is not alone. Foster kids’ overnight stays in hotels and offices have made headlines on the continent, from Georgia to Washington.
"We're kind of all in the same boat," DHS Director Cathy Betts said. "I know that (my staff) has been exploring all options under the sun to figure out the best way to facilitate placement for these youth."
Following criticism of the practice in Tennesee, religious groups stepped up to help provide transitional housing to youth. Texas passed a law in 2021 barring foster kids from staying overnight in government offices, although the plan somewhat backfired. The child welfare department ended up leasing properties in blighted neighborhoods, according to The Imprint, a nonprofit news outlet that covers child welfare.
Georgia decided to pay foster parents more and even offered one-time incentives of $5,000 to service providers who helped place kids who were previously staying in an office or hotel. A new Washington "professional theraputic foster care" program requires caregivers to undergo specialized training and treat it like a full-time job. The program prohibits at least one adult in the household from holding outside employment.
Whatever the solution, Hawaii needs to do something for its foster youth, Tomasino-Reed said.
"I think it absolutely sends them a message that they’re not wanted, and I think it’s detrimental," she said. "They’re entitled to the most home-like environment. Nothing is less homelike than a DHS office."
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