Horrifying Conditions in Oregon's Foster Care System

In an ongoing scandal, Oregon's Department of Human Services has been the subject of a series of damning reports, public controversy, and several lawsuits over children in the foster care system being found in horrifying conditions. The problems have led to some firings, but pending litigation and continued reports that DHS has failed to adequately address the problems are threatening to blow the lid off an already volatile situation.

The problems in Oregon's foster care system span years, but systemic problems only first started catching widespread public attention after a federal report, released in March 2016, showed that "Oregon's child welfare system is failing across the board when it comes to keeping thousands of children in state care safe and healthy."

According to OregonLive,

The state has also struggled to keep children who've been abused from enduring new harm, either in state custody or after they leave it. Parents aren't able to see their children as often as they should.

And obtaining mental health treatment has been a challenge, with foster families unwilling to sign up and private agencies finding it difficult to hire qualified staff. Available foster homes have fallen from 4,229 in 2013 to 3,847 in 2015.

The findings ... show Oregon's system losing ground after passing three of 14 areas in a similar review in 2008.

This is only the tip of the iceberg. Many foster care providers were well known to state officials for providing inadequate nutrition, exposing foster kids to abuse and general neglect - and were still allowed to operate for many years without consequences.

Much of the problem appears to stem from a lack of timely investigations into allegations of abuse or neglect. A 140-page federal report shows that barely over half of all abuse and neglect allegation investigations are completed in a timely manner, and that both 24-hour investigations and 5-day investigations got worse from 2014 to 2015. Reports requiring investigations within 24 hours received a timely review in just 62.6% of cases in 2015 -- down from 63.7% in 2014; and reports requiring investigations within 5 days received a timely review in just 15.5% of cases, down from 16.2% in 2014.

On top of that, Oregon greatly exceeds the federal foster care standard for recurring maltreatment while in the system:

Oregon does not meet the national standard of 8.5%. This standard measures of all children who were victims of a substantiated or indicated maltreatment report during a 12-month period, what percent were victims of another substantiated or indicated maltreatment report within 12 months.

The report states that in 2014, 95% of children were not subject to recurrence of abuse by foster care providers, but that in 2015, that number plummeted to 78%.

The culture of neglect and abuse has become rampant. Earlier this year, a lawsuit was filed against the state by conservators for two children who were found in horrifying conditions in foster care. The lawsuit seeks $60 million in damages, saying, "money is needed to help compensate the children for suffering and abuse and to pay for extensive medical, emotional and cognitive needs that resulted from chronic starvation during critical years of development."

The details of the neglect, broken down in the lawsuit, are heart-rending:

The caseworkers did not act to move them from the home or get them help, even when they had face-to-face contact with the emaciated sister and brother, the suit said. A caseworker saw the children less than a month before doctors at Randall Children's Hospital determined they were suffering from chronic starvation, but the caseworker did nothing.

At the time they were hospitalized, the girl was 5 years and 3 months old and weighed 30 pounds – the normal weight for a girl between 2½ and 3. She weighed exactly the same when she moved in with the Yateses.

The boy, then 4, weighed 27 pounds – normal for a boy just turning 2. He had gained just 14 ounces after the human services department placed him with the Yateses at age 17 months.

According to OregonLive, this is at least the third time that a foster care provider has been charged with starving the children assigned to their care.

In response to this escalating crisis, Gov. Kate Brown (D-Portland) hired a consulting firm to audit the foster care system. Their report is deeply disturbing, showing that the system is backsliding in too many areas:

  • Foster children in Oregon are being abused at an increasing rate — nearly double the national median rate
  • The current abuse reporting procedure is not standardized, and rated as untrustworthy
  • DHS does not adequately follow up on abuse investigations
  • Foster care providers are not adequately trained to care for high-needs children
  • There is a rush to certify foster homes and place children, which compromises safety standards

What's more, consultants found that legislation passed this year which increased regulations on foster care providers had the unintended effect of pushing away good foster parents and causing strain within DHS.

Multiple reports show that the years of bureaucratic red tape and lack of accountability may be substantially to blame. The current lawsuit cites the example of a caseworker who has been promoted out of troubling situations multiple times:

The manager who oversaw the caseworkers who failed to help the young siblings was Shirley Vollmuller, the lawsuit says. She is the same manager who supervised the caseworkers who did nothing as another young sister and brother were starved in a Clackamas County foster home from 2002 to 2004.

A jury awarded that little boy $2 million and determined that Vollmuller and one other human services worker were the most responsible for the horrors those children endured.

The jury issued that verdict October 2011. By then, Vollmuller had been promoted from the Clackamas child welfare office to the top managerial role in Washington County child welfare office, where she now earns $100,000. She oversaw the decision to place the sister and little brother in the Yateses' rural Yamhill County foster home in May 2012.

In addition to needed reforms to DHS, the auditor's report also states that too often DHS fails to enforce existing guidelines:

They also said DHS could centralize and standardize its processes for investigating child abuse and adopt clear protocols that include following up on claims of abuse.

Beyond identifying problem areas, the report also recommended system-wide improvements for DHS, including suggestions as simple as that DHS should follow its own policies.

 A final report is due to the governor later this month. The newly appointed head of DHS has testified to the legislature that it is "very likely Oregon will not meet national standards in the final report," and that a previous improvement plan from 2008 has gone largely ignored. The failure of the recently passed legislation, reports of long-term indifference to growing problems, and ongoing litigation indicate that actions taken so far are unacceptable and more must be done to reform the foster care system in Oregon.