Foster crisis for sexually aggressive youths
Caregivers rebel over state's payment cuts
By CLAUDIA ROWE / Grant M. Haller / P-I
February 14, 2005
  Among the thousands of children in state foster care are a troubling few who keep caseworkers on the phone late into the evening trying to find acceptable placements, kids who have served time for raping other children, young people deemed such a high risk for sexual aggression that their bedroom doors must be rigged with alarms.
  Group homes resist taking so-called sexually aggressive youths, and many foster parents are unprepared to handle their sometimes extreme behavior.
  Patricia M., a foster mother to sexually aggressive teens for nine years, checks on one of her foster children. The monitor on the door was installed to keep track of the movements of the youth, identified as sexually aggressive.    
  For the past 10 years, Washington officials have relied on a small battalion of regular folks who are paid extra to shuttle the children, mostly boys, to therapy appointments, monitor their Internet use and provide near-constant surveillance.
  Until recently, they shouldered the responsibility with only intermittent complaints. But last fall, the state Department of Social and Health Services began cutting their reimbursement rates, prompting some to consider closing their doors to the boys, and unleashing a torrent of criticism.
  In sum, the foster parents say, the state provides only the thinnest training to caregivers of sexually aggressive youths and zero follow-through after the boys turn 18.
  More worrisome, they add, is the agency's move to increasingly place high-risk children in regular foster homes.
  "These aren't just angry kids, or aggressive kids," said Patricia M., who has been a full-time foster mother to sexually aggressive teens in Mount Vernon for the last nine years. "We've had boys putting sperm in a squirt gun and shooting it at other boys. ...   We've had kids so tough that the state had to supply somebody to watch them so we could sleep at night."
  In December, a 40 percent cut to Patricia's monthly foster care stipend led her to take work at a knitting store, she said, and squeeze a fourth boy into her home to make up the shortfall.
  "(These kids) have serious behavior issues, and we're required to provide round-the-clock supervision," Patricia said. "That's why we got the higher rate. It was always supposed to be a 24-7 thing, which makes it pretty much a full-time job."
   The state says otherwise. DSHS policy holds that foster parents must be able to maintain their households without government payment.
  So while conceding that caretakers like Patricia provide an important service, agency managers say that many of them -- taking in anywhere from $24,000 to $72,000 a year -- have been improperly using the system as their sole source of income.   Supervising children, they insist, was never supposed to be a career.
  "Some of these homes have become financially dependent on that revenue, and it was never meant to be that," said Doug Allison, manager for the behavioral rehabilitation and sexually aggressive youth programs at DSHS in Olympia. "It's not a job."
Shifts in the program
  Last fall, the ax came down. In an effort to create uniformity in a system that had disintegrated into a patchwork of payment-and-therapy arrangements, the state -- which spends about $600,000 annually on sexually aggressive youth -- began evaluating each child individually and downsizing reimbursements accordingly.
  In the counties north of Seattle, where there are about 100 children in the program, rates were sliced by 40 percent on average -- from about $2,000 per child each month to $1,300.
  "I'm done, I've had it," said Cheryl C., an exasperated foster mom to three sexually aggressive boys in Oak Harbor. "I don't know how long I can keep doing this."
  Yet almost weekly, she receives new requests to house more children.
  Though Washington has about 1,800 registered juvenile sex offenders, only a small number -- 270 -- are included in the program for sexually aggressive youths, who must be wards of the state and abused themselves. About 120 of these are in foster care. The rest live in specialized group homes or with their families. Some are registered sex offenders; others are merely youngsters who have displayed troubling behavior. Those under 12, who are too young for court, are referred to the program by prosecutors.
  "Yes, these kids have offended against a child, but they're children themselves," Allison said. "Some are very young -- only 8 years old -- and they're being labeled 'sexually aggressive' based on one isolated incident that happened because they were themselves being sexually abused and acted out."
  To Patricia and eight other foster parents interviewed for this story, most of whom requested anonymity to protect the boys in their homes, it appears that the state is trying to have it both ways -- acknowledging that their work requires more than typical foster parenting, yet paying them now at typical rates; demanding that their kids sleep in bedrooms with alarms on the doors, yet suggesting that many no longer need such strict oversight.
  As a reality check, Patricia suggested that they speak to one of the four boys she cares for.
  "Will you ever be cured?" she asked a clean-cut 18-year-old who came to her from a nine-month stint for child rape at Echo Glen Children's Center in Snoqualmie.
  "No, that's stupid," he said. "It's not a logical thing that could be cured. A murderer's never cured."
  Nonetheless, the youth, who consented to an interview on the condition that he not be named, has made huge gains, Patricia said. He has a girlfriend who knows about his past -- he was required to tell her parents -- and is considering community college. He likes cooking, but he fears failure in the kitchen. He wants to explain himself, but is afraid of being misunderstood.
  He is afraid, in fact, of almost everything -- of keeping his past a secret, and of what might happen if it got out. He hopes to get de-registered, but lives a life proscribed by shame. He insists he will never again touch a child, but knows his thoughts and fantasies will be an issue for life.
  "I didn't like what I did to begin with -- it was more of a cry for help than anything," the young man said. "There are some extreme kids out there that are really screwed up but not all of them are, so don't judge a book by its cover."
  By minimizing the risk boys like hers can pose, and housing them with less experienced foster parents, Patricia believes DSHS is opening itself up to enormous liability.
  At least one lawyer agrees. Tim Farris, a Bellingham attorney who settled a major lawsuit against the agency last year, won its acknowledgement that DSHS had routinely violated the constitutional rights of foster children by placing them in unsuitable homes, and also secured an assurance that the agency would change its ways.
  That agreement -- six years in the making -- would be violated if high-risk youths are shunted onto families unequipped to handle them, Farris said.
  Gia Wesley, a regional supervisor for DSHS who has been fielding angry phone calls from caregivers threatening to quit, acknowledged that the lawsuit looms constantly.
  "It's really increased the pressure," she said. "We just don't have placements-to-order and the staff here are often working until 8 o'clock trying to put the pieces together."

'A right to be rehabilitated'
  Foster parents who agree to take on high-needs, high-risk kids are required to undergo training -- in this case it consists of a two-hour video, recommended self-test and annual six-hour workshop.
"  It's laughable, a Band-Aid, a joke," said the Rev. Clyde Haynes, who sheltered sexually aggressive boys in Marysville for 10 years and retired from the program last summer, in part because he knew a rate cut was coming.
  Haynes recalled one youth, Edward Hope, who was placed with him for six months until the minister, no longer able to control the boy, gave him up. He heard nothing about what had happened to him until turning on the TV news in July to see that Hope, now 20, had been arrested for luring a 12-year-old boy away from a baseball game in Everett and raping him in a motel room.
  Allison, the program director at DSHS, is a former counselor to young sex offenders and concurred with prevailing research that says they are essentially incurable, just as an alcoholic or drug abuser would be. He also acknowledged that the agency makes no effort to track the youths once they turn 18 and leave the system.
  More than debates over money, it is this lack of follow-through that troubles Cheryl, the Oak Harbor foster mom. Her work is grueling, but she loves it. A former food service worker in the local public school, Cheryl has turned her home into a haven and believes she provides an essential service.
  "Every child, I feel, whether a sex offender or not, has a right to be rehabilitated, to get back into the community, and we try to do that," she said. "We try to teach these boys that there are better things out there than where they've come from."
  Nevertheless, Cheryl worries. In her kitchen, she waits for phone calls from her former charges. Some have moved on and raised families. Others, she never hears from again. No longer under state supervision, they receive no provision for therapy, no oversight, nothing to prevent them from harming another child.
  "Once they leave our home," Cheryl said, "it's, 'Hey, you're on your own.' "

P-I reporter Claudia Rowe can be reached at 206-448-8320 or