A Year Later, Oregon's Foster Care System Is Still a Horror Show

Under increasing pressure last year, Oregon Governor Kate Brown (D-Portland) finally commissioned a blue ribbon task force to investigate problems in the state’s foster care system. The result?

The problems just keeps getting worse.

Rather than seeing improvements in Department of Human Services practices in regards to foster children, new state data show “a practice contrary to child welfare norms, a practice that is harmful in myriad ways, a practice its own director describes as inappropriate for even one child, but one that has become entrenched” in the foster care system.

The latest revelation came in the filings of a lawsuit on behalf of foster children that seeks to immediately halt practices by DHS that are harmful to children. The suit was filed by nonprofit children’s advocacy group CASA for Children, which represents two young girls in foster care in Oregon. They specifically cite the state’s “temporary lodging practice” and claim it violates the civil rights of the two girls.

The new data cover a period from November 18 through June 1, and were compiled by a University of Oregon law student. What the data reveal for this time period is:

  • More than 130 foster children were housed in hotel rooms or office buildings
  • Foster children lodged in such temporary housing are often supervised by unlicensed volunteer caretakers
  • One 5-year-old stayed in a hotel for 55 days
  • Many of the children in such temporary housing were 5 or younger
  • One girl tried to throw herself out of a hotel window; another boy locked himself in the hotel room away from caretakers
  • The average stay in temporary housing was 20 days
  • The longest stays ranged from 48 to 85 days

This is the latest in a series of devastating examinations of the broken foster care system in Oregon. A federal report in March 2016 said that Oregon’s foster system is failing across the board to keep children in its custody safe and healthy. Scandals repeatedly erupted around foster parents who were known abusers and were not removed from the system, and a complete lack of timely investigations into abuse reports. The report noted that conditions were deteriorating and that fundamental changes were needed.

The bubbling crisis put pressure on Governor Brown to take some sort of action. A consulting firm she hired produced a very disturbing report that showed that Oregon’s foster children are abused at double the national rate, reporting was haphazard, and investigations were shoddy at best. Legislation was passed that made screening new foster parents more strict, but that had the unintended consequence of reducing the pool of available foster parents. No further action appears to have been taken after the report was released, either by the legislature or the governor’s office.

A culture of bureaucratic red tape, lack of accountability, and institutional inertia has led to a complete lack of action. The foster care system in Oregon has been in crisis for years, but nothing has been done to improve things.

Fast forward to this latest lawsuit, and the results of inaction are easy to see. The plaintiffs in this case have yet to obtain the numbers from the state that would show how many new foster placements, on average, end up in temporary housing versus regular foster homes. As the plaintiffs note in their latest filing, an 85-day stay in a conference room is “neither temporary nor emergency.”

There were other revelations from the data. Children sleeping in hotel rooms or offices averaged 11 or 12 years old. Many have been placed in temporary housing multiple times. Four children within the past seven months stayed in hotels four times, and one was lodged in a hotel room on seven separate occasions.

Obviously, children who deal with mental health issues require more qualified foster caretakers and will be more likely to burn through foster homes until a qualified caretaker is found that has an opening. This report bolsters the charge that DHS is failing to adequately recruit qualified foster homes and caretakers.

This is just one of a series of lawsuits against Oregon’s DHS. An April lawsuit on behalf of adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities alleged that DHS failed to provide vital services, citing budget cuts. These services included assistance with eating, bathing, and in-home medical assistance that allows adults with disabilities to stay in their homes. A new system was put in place in September in which DHS implemented a new needs assessment without explaining how it works to the people on assistance. A judge issued an injunction requiring DHS to restore these services.

And in May, Mary Holden Ayala, the former head of a private foster care agency licensed by the state, was indicted on charges of embezzling more than $800,000 from the agency from 2009 – 2015. The private agency, Give Us This Day, faced numerous serious charges of abuse, including sexual abuse, from its founding in 2001 — charges that went largely uninvestigated. It was also revealed that every single staff person at that agency in 2009 had a criminal record, and that they misspent $2 million in state funding. DHS knew about the malfeasance and did nothing.

Year after year after year of reports of serious problems, legislative hearings, federal reports, and grandstanding by the governor has yet to yield any significant change in Oregon’s broken foster care system.