Washington youth group homes failed inspections 2 years ago; have they improved?

SNOHOMISH COUNTY, Wash. -- It’s been two years since inspectors made unannounced visits to Washington’s youth group homes and found a slew of violations.

In that audit, not a single home they dropped in on met state standards. Q13 News investigated the status of group homes across the state and whether they've improved since that bombshell report.

"I feel like I can inspire and I can have that heart because I can see the outcome," said Mary Schroeder, who runs three group homes in Snohomish County.

She said she always had an interest in social work but not always group homes. For her, that all changed after she got David, her adopted son whom she plucked from a group home when he was 15 years old.

"He tried to sabotage it when he first came for about a few months and I was like, 'I’m not giving up on you. You’re going to be with me. You want a family, I’m here,'" she recalled.

She kept that promise and never left him. From fostering to legal guardianship, Schroeder saw David through those tough teenage years and they've been by each other's side ever since.

"Because of my experience with David, I think that I’ve been able to apply that to the kids that I work with now," she said.

"What type of people get into this profession of group homes to begin with?" Q13 News correspondent Simone Del Rosario asked.

"People who care about kids, who want them to be successful, that want them to have family," she replied.

And what type of children get sent to group homes?

"Maybe they’re having trouble stabilizing in foster homes," said Ron Effland of the Department of Children, Youth and Families. He is in charge of licensing these homes.

"We’re dealing with kids who come from situations that can be traumatizing so there’s behavioral issues, there can be mental health issues, drug and alcohol issues," he continued.

These are issues he said that could call for more restrictive care. But the homes that these kids live in didn’t live up to state standards.

In 2016, the federal government made surprise visits to 20 of Washington’s group homes. Not a single home fully complied with medical safety requirements.

"It’s unfortunate when you see some of these things," Effland said. "You want to believe things are better."

But they weren’t. Inspectors spotted holes in walls, rotten vegetables and windows that were screwed shut. These are just a few of the most egregious violations highlighted in the Office of Inspector General's report.

All 20 homes missed the mark with medical safety but 18 had environment, space or equipment violations, and 16 homes had employees with unsatisfactory or incomplete background checks working with kids anyway.

When the federal government gave Washington state this final report nearly two years after these visits, the state said it addressed each violation line by line and updated its background check process.

"It opened some eyes," Effland told Del Rosario. "I think you brought up some points that were unacceptable. I don’t know that it’s always fair to look at pictures and get the whole story, to walk into some of our facilities and not truly understand the behaviors of some of these kids, that a hole can be kicked in that morning and yet it’s fixed that afternoon."

"But box springs and mattresses with bed bugs, rotten vegetables, those items sound like neglect to me, that sounds like more than just an unfortunate oversight," Del Rosario pointed out.

"So yes, concerning, and yes we’re continuing to address our policy and practice so those things don’t happen again," Effland replied.

Those practices now include unannounced in-home visits.

"They were always announced beforehand and now at least half of those will be unannounced in these facilities," Effland said.

It’s a change that Schroeder, as a group home director, welcomes.

"They just did an unannounced on one of my programs and we passed," she told Del Rosario.

When federal auditors toured two of her homes in 2016, she said the findings were minor, including a low ceiling in one.

"I would expect they’ll be out again," Schroeder said, noting that she welcomes the visits. "I would like to know if we can do something better."