Testimony to DC Council on Children's Services Coordination for Children Experiencing Homelessness

quote about importance of children's services coordinators

Testimony to DC Council about Children’s Services Coordination for Children Experiencing Homelessness | Kimberly Perry

In light of traumatic incidents at the family shelters shortly prior to this public health crisis, DHS must work with community leaders to develop a Children’s Services Coordination Plan in each family shelter setting (including the hotels). Instead of asking for additional funds, we urge DHS Leadership and the Community Partnership Leadership to spend time carefully planning how to address the unique service coordination needs of children living in shelters. While caseworkers are charged with helping parents exit shelter and transition to self-sufficiency, there are inconsistent and insufficient services available to address the educational, social, and emotional needs of children experiencing homelessness. 

Compared to their peers, children experiencing homelessness and housing instability are more vulnerable to and experience higher rates of mental health problems, developmental delays, poor academic and cognitive outcomes, behavioral issues and depression. Children without stable housing are also more likely to miss well baby visits and use emergency department services due to the lack of a regular health care provider. In fact, nearly half the unaccompanied homeless youth who visit Sasha Bruce have been in the homeless family system, suggesting their stays in family shelters have not helped prevent them from returning to the homeless system as teenagers and young adults. The District of Columbia spends millions of dollars annually on housing homeless families, but has not yet invested in evidence-based solutions to help children break the cycle of chronic homelessness. 

Having a Children’s Services Coordinator in shelter settings is considered, nationally, a best practice in a two-generational approach serving children and families experiencing homelessness. We would like to work with DHS to study it further to see how it could work here in the District. Children’s Services Coordinators could help ensure that the unique needs of children are met while under DC’s care. Our city cannot achieve its vision to end homelessness as we know it without investing in interventions for children living in family shelter settings now.

With the added health, housing, financial, and other stressors of the COVID-19 epidemic, as well as children’s decreased access to supportive adults outside the family unit, the challenges I outlined above are likely being exacerbated.

How Children’s Services Coordination works in other jurisdictions

When a family arrives at the shelter, a Children’s Service Coordinator provides children and youth with their own needs assessment and service plan. This complements the investment already made to start building out family and youth Service Prioritization Decision Assistance Tools, which identify any needed referrals for services and connections with schools and other community-based supports. The Coordinator works with the parent and the schools to help the family enroll in programs necessary to best support the child. The Coordinators also provide on-site crisis intervention and counseling services. The Coordinator provides group therapy for children or parents and or manages partnerships with other community service providers for similar services. In short, they ensure that children are served, rather than just housed.

Why can’t the existing case managers do this?

The case managers at the Short-Term Family Housing sites are charged with a mandate to move families into permanent housing within 90 days, a herculean task that should remain their focus. In order to make that possible, they must help families resolve credit problems, connect them with job readiness programs, address multiple barriers to housing and employment, obtain furniture and transportation for their housing placement, etc. It’s a testament to what a massive undertaking that is that 1,650 DC households struggle with chronic homelessness, and we support The Way Home Campaign’s recommendation to invest an additional $66 million to end chronic homelessness in DC. 

In addition to not having the capacity to do more, housing case managers do not have the expertise or training to support parents in how best to meet their children’s needs and provide clinical counseling services. Licensed Clinical Social Workers with a background in child development and family systems are needed to focus on the children - including navigating school and behavioral health systems and providing direct services like on-site crisis counseling -  complementing the focus of the housing case managers.

The urgency of this request

DC Action for Children recently convened a collaborative meeting with our partners about the ongoing need for this type of support. Here are a few examples of why advocates and service providers feel now is the time to hire Children's Services Coordinators:

  • Unfortunately, a tragedy pushed us to make this ask now. In February, 11-month-old baby Mackenzie died in one of the city’s motels. While an investigation was begun, no arrests have been made. Unfortunately, other families living in the motel heard about what happened through word of mouth or the news. The silence around this tragedy made families feel like her life didn’t matter to the city. 
     
  • A single mother, with an intellectual disability raising four children under age five, two of whom are nonverbal children with autism, reported she was never offered assistance enrolling her children in the critical services they were entitled to under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The mother’s caseworker failed to speak with her about her children’s rotting teeth. External service providers were able to support the mother and her children, instead. They facilitated enrolling the family in health and education services and continued working with those agencies after she left shelter to ensure a smooth transition. 
     
  • A mother with a history of trauma, bipolar disorder, and depression, pleaded for help getting her six-year-old daughter mental health services with no response from the shelter. Despite the child’s history of sexual abuse and talk of self harm, the shelter only offered her a Rapid Rehousing voucher. Within a month of working with a social worker from the Homeless Children Playtime Project, she moved into a specialized domestic violence shelter, was connected to her child’s school social worker, and was put on several waiting lists for counseling. While waiting for ongoing mental health services, the Playtime Project social worker offered 1:1 counseling for the child to help stabilize her. She also provided coaching to the parent on what to say when the child expressed thoughts of self harm, books and tools to help her at home, and home visits after she left the shelter to provide the mother with the support she requested.
     
  • News coverage this month continues to make it clear that homeless parents need more than housing to meet their children’s needs, and the formal systems currently in place are not providing sufficient support for parents to do so. Children’s Services Coordinators could serve as a connection to available city and philanthropic support for which child residents and their families are eligible. 

In summary, the District made the bold move under Mayor Bowser to close D.C. General and set up ward-based, smaller, temporary housing programs integrated into neighborhoods. All eyes are on the success of the Short-Term Family Housing sites. Piloting Children’s Services Coordinators in-house - and, if that is successful, expanding to each of these programs (and for as long as hotels are used as overflow housing, there as well) would maximize the enormous investment to better ensure stability for the entire family - especially children and youth. Spending time and effort now addressing the needs of children and young people, separate and aside from the economic needs of their parents, allows resources to be put in place so they have a better chance of breaking the cycle of raising their kids in a shelter too.