Amara will forever be grateful for the love and support of our King and Pierce county communities in running our Emergency Sanctuaries that gave kids entering foster care a gentle landing. We have no doubt that for the kids that passed through the Sanctuaries, we made those first couple of days in foster care a little less scary.
When the pandemic struck in March 2020, we temporarily closed both our sanctuaries. Very few children were entering foster care and the unknowns of how the COVID-19 virus spread made it impossible to operate such a complexly staffed program that served a vulnerable population.
Throughout 2020 and 2021, we kept the Sanctuaries temporarily closed. During this time, we did three things:
First, we kept an eye on what was happening when kids were coming into care. How many kids were entering care? Where were they going?
Second, we took the time to look at our own data from the past five years of operating the Sanctuaries. Which kids were we serving? What type of impact were we having?
Third, in partnership with our Board of Directors, we created a set of strategic priorities to guide our mission and decision-making. These priorities called for us to invest in programs that create long-term, positive impacts for children and families involved in the child welfare system; to advance racial and LGBTQIA+ equity; and to center relationships in all that we do.
As we used this pause in operating the Sanctuaries to step back and assess the need, our impact (intended and unintended), and the role we want to play in this system moving forward, something unexpected happened: we realized that we needed to permanently close the Sanctuary program.
How did we arrive at this realization?
As we looked at the need for emergency placements for kids when they first enter foster care, we saw that the need seemed to no longer be there – at least nowhere near the numbers that led us to opening the program back in 2014. The fact is that fewer kids are entering foster care, and when they do, the state is finding families for kids so that their first point of experiencing foster care is in a home-setting. In fact, we saw this with our own foster families. More and more of our foster families stepped up to take initial, short-term placements of kids while the state figured out the best path forward for the child and their family. This was a good thing!
We also looked further into the data on hotel stays for kids in foster care because this has been a big problem in Washington. But what we found also surprised us. The kids staying night-to-night in hotels were primarily teenagers with severe trauma and big behaviors. They weren’t the kids our Emergency Sanctuaries served. Fortunately, for the kids previously served in our Sanctuaries, they were getting placements directly into foster homes or with their relatives.
So it looked like the need for our emergency placement program had shifted.
Then we looked at our own impact from running the program. Which kids were we serving? We were great at supporting younger kids entering foster care (ages 10 and under) and sibling sets. What impact were we having? On an individual basis, a positive one. We operated our sanctuaries with great care and with highly trained staff and excellent, caring volunteers. We know that the kids we supported felt comforted and seen.
But in an honest assessment, we recognized we were having unintended impacts as well. Regardless of how well trained and caring our staff and volunteers were, the truth was that the sanctuaries were still placing kids in an institutional setting, not with a family. During a child’s stay in the Sanctuary, kids had a revolving door of adults caring for them. Each day brought a new set of grown-ups with a new set of expectations, attachment disruptions, and transitions. Kids going through the trauma of entering foster care need the stability and predictability that is best delivered in a family setting where caregivers are trained, supported, and are the same people day in and day out.
Lastly, we turned to our strategic priorities and the impact we wanted to have on kids, families, and the child welfare system as a whole. Where can we invest our resources to have the greatest, long-term impact on kids, families, and transforming the child welfare system? In stepping back, we had to reckon with the fact that our Sanctuaries operated as a band-aid and lessened the burden on the state to ensure that there are enough well-trained and supported foster and kinship families to care for children. We want to see the system safely change, and we don’t want to have a role in making it easier to separate families or overlook the need to invest in foster and kinship caregivers.
We have also been tasked with making decisions in challenging funding environments. We came to the decision that serving children for only 3-5 days – while also creating an additional transition in their foster care experience – wasn’t going to mitigate the negative impacts of foster care enough for the resources it took to operate the program. We wanted to have a greater, lasting impact.
We know and affirm that our Emergency Sanctuary program was built and funded with love and dedication. Our staff and volunteers who worked there to provide comfort to hurting children gave of themselves selflessly and with kindness and compassion. They met a very important need at the time. Amara will always be grateful to everyone who played a role in providing kids with a soft landing after having to leave their homes.
But we are compelled to change course as the needs of kids and families change.
And so we have permanently closed this program. We have shifted our resources to help safely prevent kids from ever entering foster care, to keep kids connected to their families while in care, and to support relative/kinship caregivers who currently receive almost no support when they step forward to care for their kin in foster care.
We are grateful for the community who was alongside us during the operations of our Sanctuaries. Thank you for helping solve the problem facing kids at that time. We have all learned together, and we hope this next chapter that calls us to respond to new needs, keeps us together and improving the wellbeing of kids and families experiencing foster care.