Washington State Reaches Groundbreaking Federal Class-Action Settlement for Youth in Foster Care

Contact: Willis Jacobson, National Center for Youth Law: wjacobson@youthlaw.org | media@youthlaw.org; Susan Kas, Disability Rights Washington: susank@dr-wa.org; Camilla Jenkins, Children’s Rights: cjenkins@childrensright.org; Jason Wettstein, Department of Children, Youth, and Families: Jason.Wettstein@dcyf.wa.gov 

 State commits to significant transformations of Washington’s foster care system. 

 SEATTLE — Today, Washington’s Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF) settled D.S. v. Washington State DCYF, a federal class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of hundreds of youth in the state’s foster care system. In the agreement, DCYF promises to implement new statewide models for supporting youth in foster care and their families and to collaborate in additional ways with child welfare clients, alumni, and stakeholders to improve its policies and practices. 

The lawsuit was brought by Disability Rights Washington and three young people in foster care on behalf of themselves and other similarly situated foster children. The named Plaintiffs, all of whom identified as having behavioral health conditions, described their experiences of being separated from their families, being sent to out-of-state institutions, and spending time in single night placements or hotels over significant time periods. 

Over the past eleven months, the parties negotiated in good faith with the assistance of a mediator and ultimately reached agreement on a settlement to present to the Court for approval. Recognizing that foster children who experience hotel, one-night, and out-of-state placements are often survivors of complex trauma and disproportionately identify as Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) and LGBTQIA+, the parties negotiated sweeping system improvements that will be trauma-informed, culturally-responsive, and LGBTQIA+-affirming. 

Per the terms of the settlement, DCYF committed to implement the following reforms as alternatives to relying on hotel stays, one-night placements, and congregate care facilities: 

DCYF also agreed to enhance its engagement with individuals with lived experience in the child welfare system and stakeholders to develop better practices around involving and supporting extended families, working with families to identify and meet needs through group planning, and mitigating the destabilizing and triggering impacts that foster children experience during referral and transition periods. 

DCYF will hire a facilitator to convene individuals and stakeholders to hear about their experiences, and will compile a public report with feedback and recommendations for what practice and policy changes DCYF should implement. DCYF will also publicly release an implementation plan describing how it will make the changes promised in the agreement. 

Kathleen Noonan will serve as a monitor to review DCYF’s implementation plan, as well as performance and outcomes. Under the agreement, whether DCYF can reduce placement disruptions and eliminate hotel and one-night placements will be among the factors the Court will consider in determining whether DCYF has met its settlement obligations. 

The parties will submit their agreement to the Honorable Judge Barbara Rothstein of the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington for approval. Upon the Court’s preliminary approval, notice of the settlement will be sent to the class, and the Court will schedule a hearing to determine whether the settlement is fair, reasonable, and adequate. 

DCYF Assistant Secretary Steven Grilli explained, “The commitments we are making today build upon our overarching commitments to safely reduce the number of children in out-of-home care, to strengthen families and communities, and to promote equity.” 

According to Disability Rights Washington Attorney Susan Kas, “Our organization brought this case because far too many foster children with disabilities were becoming strangers to their own families and communities of origin due to the failures of traditional child welfare models.” Children’s Rights Attorney Leecia Welch added, “DCYF’s commitments in this settlement are crucial steps towards reimagining the child welfare system to provide for healing, community, and lasting relationships with supportive adults for all children, regardless of their race, gender, or disabilities.” 

The National Center for Youth Law, Disability Rights Washington, Carney Gillespie PLLP, Children’s Rights, and Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP represent the Plaintiffs.