Last week, The Chronicle of Social Change reported on the heartbreaking case of Kenneth, a foster youth in New York City who spent more than a year in a shelter that failed to appropriately care for him. The family court judge in the case, Emily Olshansky, was so frustrated with the child welfare agency’s care of Kenneth that she held its commissioner, David Hansell, in contempt of court.
The situation raises questions about how New York City is using a shelter that is designed to hold 50 or fewer foster youths for a handful of days as a more stable solution is found. The average daily population has reached 80, and as Kenneth’s story shows, some stay far longer than anyone would recommend.
New York is hardly the first state or city child welfare system with problems in its emergency shelter. These facilities – and the ability to quickly move kids out of them – have been at the heart of several class action lawsuits and media exposés over the years.
California, 1998: Orange County sued by National Center for Youth Law
The suit alleged that the county was using the Orangewood Children’s Home to house children for “long periods of time in overcrowded conditions under the supervision of untrained staff who are unable to meet their most basic developmental needs.”
Georgia, 2002: Fulton and Dekalb counties – both of which include parts of Atlanta – sued by Children’s Rights
From the original complaint:
“Foster children are frequently left in dangerous emergency shelters for months and sometimes years at a time. …Foster children living in the shelters are exposed to, and consistently involved in, dangerous activities, including violence, gang activity, sexual assault, prostitution, and illicit drug activity.”
Mississippi, 2004: State sued by Children’s Rights in 2004 (now handled by A Better Childhood)
The plaintiffs identified 168 children living in emergency shelters that had been there for an average of 124 days; 40 for more than 200 days.
“DHS is so understaffed that abused children are simply being parked and forgotten in emergency shelters for months at a time,” said Eric Thompson, former senior staff attorney for Children’s Rights, in a press release from 2005. “Children growing up in shelters are being robbed of their childhoods.”
Oklahoma, 2008: State sued by Children’s Rights in 2004 (now handled by A Better Childhood)
The lawsuit alleges that all youth removed into foster care from the state’s two largest counties are initially placed into emergency shelters. This is due to “the grave shortage of foster homes.”It also says the state puts “children of all ages – even infants and toddlers – for extended periods of time in dangerous, overcrowded and inappropriate emergency shelters without adequate staffing.”
One shelter, the Laura Dester Children’s Center, was closed as part of the settlement in the case. It was recently re-openedas a residential facility for youth with behavioral health needs.
Illinois, 2013: Cook County Investigated by Chicago Tribune
A Chicago Tribune investigation finds that a shortage of foster homes has caused Cook County to rely heavily on the Aunt Martha’s Children’s Reception Center, which it describes as “plagued by overcrowding and problems with runaways that require hundreds of police visits a year.”
Minnesota, 2017: Hennepin County (Minneapolis) sued by A Better Childhood
From the original complaint, which found that 10 percent of the county’s foster youth lived in the emergency shelter:
“Hennepin County’s temporary foster care shelter system is so overwhelmed, and the County has such an acute shortage of adequate foster home placements, that in some instances CFS has placed children in hospitals for days when there was no medical reason for doing so, temporarily housed infants in County offices, refrained from removing children from known abusive or neglectful homes, or placed children in inadequate and unlicensed relative homes.
California, 2017: Shelters Investigated by San Francisco Chronicle
San Francisco Chronicle investigative reporter Karen de Sá leads a team that exposes the frequent involvement of police for relatively minor transgressions at the state’s 10 emergency shelters. One shelter – the Mary Graham Children’s Center in Stockton – accounted for a third of the 485 arrests at the facilities.