Center for ‘throwaway kids’ to close

By Janice Podsada

Herald Writer

MOUNTLAKE TERRACE — In the rush to pack, they have torn their rooms apart — a teddy bear lies face down on the floor, a pile of laundry spills across a bed. The posters, stuffed animals and all the 19 kids must be out by Wednesday, Halloween.

At the Source Child Center in Mountlake Terrace, a noisy vacuum cleaner has replaced the sound of kids talking, laughing or cursing.

The last was par for the course at the center, where a child "had to have bombed out of at least five foster homes" to be considered for admission, said director Dave Halbett.

"Yeah, they have problems. It’s rough around here. We have a 13-year-old girl who’s on her 21st placement," he said.

But after 30 years of operation, the group home is closing. The state Department of Social and Health Services says it can’t afford to fully fund the facility, Halbett said. The state offered only 70 percent of the cost required to take care of the kids.

"You can’t count on the other 30 percent to come from private donations," Halbett said. "Money is hard to come by at this time. Even corporate donations have dried up."

Before the closure was announced a month ago, the center cared for 19 kids: eight children ages 8 to 12, and 10 teenagers ages 13 to 17.

Some group homes do receive 100 percent reimbursement. But they are paid the higher rate because certain children require more medical or emotional care, said Kathy Spears, a DSHS spokeswoman.

"The Source wanted to get that higher rate for every child in their program, whether they needed it or not," Spears said. "We would always like to pay these providers more if we could, but we couldn’t do that in these lean budget times."

At any given time, there are about 11,000 children living in group homes across the state, she said.

The center provides a break for developmentally delayed children or those with mental health problems who need time to regain their footing before they are returned to relatives or to a foster home.

"These are kids who have suffered physical or emotional abuse. For some, it’s fetal alcohol syndrome. They wouldn’t be here if they were easy to manage and delightful."

The goal of the center was not to keep the children long-term, but provide them with a stable environment, counseling and the kind of emotional tools that would allow them to return to a family-living situation.

"We want them to be adopted or placed in long-term foster care," Halbett said.

Seattle Children’s Home took over management of the Source more than a year ago. In that time, they have painted the walls, remodeled the kitchen and offices, and cleaned the air vents, which hadn’t been cleaned in 30 years.

"It was our first foray into Snohomish County," said Linnea Peover, a spokeswoman for Seattle Children’s Home, a 20-year-old Seattle agency. "We made the decision to close it a month ago. It was a difficult decision to make, but the state’s per-child payment rate was insufficient to maintain a therapeutic environment."

Halbett fears that as the state tightens its budget and private donations fall off, more group homes for kids — even those managed by longtime, respected agencies — will close.

"This feels like a trend," Halbett said. "The Ryther Child Center in Seattle just closed a couple of programs."

"It felt like we were just on the edge," he said, sighing. "The pieces were coming together here. We had a good staff.

"But you can’t run a place with a 30 percent gap. We refuse to be a facility that feeds the kids Top Ramen three times a day and warehouses them."

Each child had his or her own room at the center, which is on a wooded, three-acre site. They attended school in the Edmonds School District, where many of them made friends or found caring teachers to help them regain their emotional footing, Halbett said.

"You would have hoped that the state with its massive DSHS organization could have found some way to keep this place open," he said.

"For all the lip-service given to the value of children, that value is placed on high-achievers, the more attractive ones. The value isn’t placed on these kids."

"These are the throwaway kids. Unfortunately, throwaway kids don’t just go away. Some of these kids will do OK if they have a good caregiver. Others will become lifelong users of the system."

Halbett said the center’s counselors and staff are trying to find the remaining 12 children the best possible homes.

You can call Herald Writer Janice Podsada at 425-339-3029 or send e-mail to podsada@heraldnet.com.

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