Unannounced visits to 20 foster-care group homes in Washington in 2016 revealed that every one of them failed to meet at least one state licensing requirement aimed to protect children’s health and safety, according to an audit report released Thursday by the U.S. Office of Inspector General.
None of the group homes fully complied with medical-safety requirements, and nearly all of them – 18 out of the 20 facilities reviewed – failed to meet one or more environmental-, space- or equipment-safety standards, the audit found.
In addition, 16 of the group homes failed to conduct required background checks on some employees; 11 didn’t meet food-safety standards; and seven facilities ran afoul of fire-safety or emergency-practices requirements.
The report recommended that Washington ensure all of the state-licensed group homes address the identified problems, as well as strengthen its supervision of such foster-care facilities, including by conducting more unannounced visits and running even more background checks than are now required.
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“The unannounced visits and the FBI fingerprint checks are the most important (recommendations) for protecting this vulnerable population of children,” Gopa Guha, an Office of Inspector General senior auditor, said Wednesday.
Officials with Washington’s Department of Social and Health Services, which oversees foster care in this state through its Children’s Administration, have agreed with the audit’s findings and already have implemented some recommendations and plan to soon adopt the others, Guha said.
The agency “has already proposed fixes to the issues identified in the report, including developing training for Children’s Administration and group home staff on medication management; adding facility inspections to the quarterly health and safety monitoring we are already doing; and other solutions,” Norah West, a DSHS spokeswoman, said in an email Wednesday.
Among other actions, the Children’s Administration has changed its policies to ensure at least 10 percent of its routine six-month health- and safety-monitoring visits are carried out through unannounced visits. The state previously always forewarned the homes about such visits, Guha said.
“Based on our experiences, we feel like the unannounced visits give us a real sense of how conditions are” at such facilities, Guha added.
After recent national-media reports highlighted cases in which children died while in foster care, Congress raised concerns about the safety of such group homes, prompting the federal audits. The Office of Inspector General conducted reviews to determine how four states – Washington, Massachusetts, Ohio and Oklahoma – were monitoring health- and safety-licensing requirements at 24-hour group-care facilities that serve special-needs foster kids who are unable to live in family foster homes.
The Office of Inspector General chose to review 20 of the 51 group care facilities in Washington that are eligible for federal funding, conducting visits from Aug. 9 to Sept. 15, 2016. The report did not specify which facilities were reviewed, but it noted findings are based on visits to group homes in Burien; Burlington; Centralia; Everett; Kent; Loon Lake, Stevens County; Marysville; Olympia; Sedro-Woolley; Spokane; Tacoma; Veradale, Spokane County; Woodinville; and Yakima.
Among its findings, the audit determined some of the state-licensed care facilities failed multiple times to document when prescribed medications were being administered to children, as required.
The audit also revealed unsanitary and unsafe conditions at some homes, including facilities that failed to safely store gasoline, household cleaners or other toxic substances; facilities that had windows, walls or staircases in disrepair; and a home that didn’t properly dispose of a mattress and box springs that had been infested with bedbugs.
Group homes also were found with expired foods or spoiled, moldy and rotten vegetables; some didn’t have accessible fire extinguishers; and some had windows that were too small or screwed shut, preventing children from escaping in the event of an emergency.
Federal auditors also found 45 “instances of noncompliance” at 16 of the 20 home that allowed employees with unsatisfactory, pending or incomplete background checks to supervise children.
The audit separately identified a “vulnerability” in a state requirement that all group-care employees hired after Jan. 1, 2016, submit to FBI-fingerprint checks. Group homes aren’t comprehensively running such checks on employees who were hired before 2016, it found.
“We determined that 132 of 263 current employees working at the 20 group care facilities during the week before our site visits had not had FBI fingerprint-based background checks conducted because they were hired before the requirement went into effect,” the report states.
West noted that the 132 employees “had already passed Washington State Patrol and child abuse background checks.”
In a letter dated Feb. 1, Connie Lambert-Eckel, the Children’s Administration’s acting assistant secretary, told the Office of Inspector General’s regional office that the state accepts and agrees with all of the federal audit report’s findings and recommendations.
All of the group foster-care licensees have since addressed the identified issues, Lambert-Eckel noted, and her agency soon will require fingerprint checks for all group-care staff, whether new hires or existing employees.
“For those staff hired before January 1, 2016, CA will fingerprint those staff at the time of group-care facility license renewals,” she wrote.
That will include the 132 employees identified who hadn’t gotten fingerprint checks, West noted.
“To our knowledge, no state employees were fired or let go as a result of the audit; we cannot speak for the group homes,” West added Wednesday. “If there were actual background-check failures and the reason(s) for the failure(s) were disclosable, it would take some time to retrieve that information.”