When School is a DSHS office

A child sits in a classroom. Studies show that frequent moves many foster kids endure set them up for failure in school.


A child sits in a classroom. Studies show that frequent moves many foster kids endure set them up for failure in school.

By Allegra Abramo and Susanna Ray/InvestigateWest

When foster children spend the night in a hotel or in a foster home that agrees to keep them for only one night at a time, they typically don’t make it to school the next day. Instead, they sit in a state Department of Social and Health Services office. Over-stretched social workers must take turns babysitting them, while also trying to manage their dozens of cases.

Foster youth Ronnie Andrews recalls sitting in DSHS offices from 7 in the morning until 10 at night, sometimes with a dozen other children of all ages.

“I’m sitting there waiting for another placement, until they say there’s nothing left,” said Andrews, who recently left foster care when he turned 18. “And then an after-hours social worker takes me either to a hotel or a one-night placement, if they have one,” he said. “And then I repeat the process again until I find an actual home. I did that for… a couple weeks at a time.”

The frequent moves many foster kids endure set them up for school failure. The less stable children are, the more likely they are to be absent from school and to have multiple school changes, studies show. Andrews said he moved nearly 50 times in five years of foster care and attended about 20 schools. He expects to finish high school at least a semester late, but he has his sights set on attending culinary college when he does.

Each time children change schools, they lose four to six months of academic progress, according to Janis Avery, chief executive officer of Treehouse, which provides academic support for foster youth. “And so kids with a lot of moves have a lot of academic loss,” Avery said. “And these kids may not have had good prenatal care, or early attachment or preschool, so they come into [school] with deficits.”

That helps explain why foster children tend to have lower high school and college graduation rates — and lower employment rates and income — than their peers.

Given Washington’s severe shortage of foster homes, kids sometimes are placed hundreds of miles from home, making getting to school nearly impossible until they are able to settle into a long-term placement. Some foster parents volunteer to transport foster children back and forth to school, because social workers don’t have time to shuttle the kids around.

Christy Tennant Krispin, a foster mom in West Seattle, says she took in an elementary-school aged boy for what was supposed to be one night. That turned into eight nights. He’d already missed a week of school while staying in a group home, so Krispin decided to drive him to his Pierce County school, even though federal law requires the state to provide transportation to children in their first month of foster care.

“When we walked into school that first day, the staff all came and hugged him, and he was glowing to be back in school,” Krispin said. “For kids like him … school is the one constant thing.”

The DSHS administrator in charge of the foster-care program, Children’s Administration secretary Jennifer Strus, said she has not had reports of kids missing “tons of school.” But, she acknowledged, “I do know that sometimes we have kids sitting in offices, because we have parents who will take them from 8 at night to 7 in the morning, for a variety of reasons… We’ve got kids sitting in offices, and not enough people to drive these kids around.”

Avery says recruiting foster families through schools could help kids stay in their schools and communities. “I think it’s time for much more creative thinking,” she said.