Oregon has spent more than $25 million housing 462 kids in foster care in hotels after the state promised to stop the practice as part of a legal settlement in 2018.
On Tuesday, a federal judge took the rare step of appointing an outside expert to oversee the state’s Department of Human Services, noting the state agency has not figured out how to wind down the practice known as “temporary lodging” on its own.
The state has not only failed to curb the practice, child welfare officials have increasingly relied on placing kids in hotels. In the first six months of this year, 75 kids were placed in hotels; ranging in age from 6 to 19 years old. Twenty of those kids have lived in a hotel for more than 60 days.
“This is incredibly harmful for these kids,” said Maggie Carlson, an attorney for Youth, Rights & Justice, which was one of the groups that filed a lawsuit in 2016 to stop the practice of hoteling. “They are spending months and months in hotels with a rotating cast of caregivers all the while getting the message they are unwanted and can’t do well with a regular family and they are different and unlovable. It really affects their mental health in the long term.”
When the state of Oregon removes a child from their home, child welfare officials are responsible for their care and ensuring they receive any mental health care they might need. Placing vulnerable youth in hotels for extended periods of time is widely recognized — even among Department of Human Services officials who are responsible for the kids placed in state care — as an inappropriate placement.
Attorneys and advocates with Youth, Rights & Justice and the Oregon Law Center asked a judge earlier this year to consider placing a court-appointed special master, someone who could ensure Department of Human Services officials worked to end the practice of hoteling.
U.S. District Court Judge Michael McShane agreed this week and appointed Marty Beyer as special master to make specific recommendations to the court. Beyer will enter into a one-year contract with the state and spend the first three months gathering information before coming up with recommendations on how to find better placements for vulnerable children. The judge could then order the state to follow Beyer’s recommendations.
Oregon DHS officials offered a range of reasons why they struggle to find adequate places to house kids, such as a lack of capacity in both foster homes and residential treatment centers, the latter of which help treat kids with extensive behavioral health needs.
The state has struggled for years to find appropriate placements after kids have been removed from their family. When the state started sending foster kids to dangerous out-of-state facilities, officials initially deflected blame by saying kids had such complex needs there was no adequate spot for them in Oregon.
In recent legal filings, advocates noted the state was again relying on the same rationale to explain the need for hoteling, writing the agency consistently failed to undertake systemic changes.
For seven years, the state has said there was a lack of suitable placements for kids and it was working diligently to increase capacity, McShane wrote, adding, “this argument has become nothing more than a stale mantra and the Court has lost faith in ODHS’ ability to end this entrenched policy on its own.”
A bigger problem
Annette Smith, a public defender representing kids placed in foster care, has watched the state struggle to find appropriate placements for kids for years. In 2019, she represented a 9-year-old girl who was sent to a facility in Montana where she was drugged and largely abandoned by the state of Oregon. Shortly after the young child’s story became public, a litany of other cases of abuse were raised and the facility was shuttered.
Smith currently represents a teenage boy who was placed in a hotel in Lane County for about 10 months.
“It’s tricky because I often represent kids who have been in (congregate care) programs before and … they would honestly rather be in a hotel room than in another program like that,” Smith said, adding because the congregate care facilities are also largely not ideal for most kids who are placed in foster care.
What is truly needed in Oregon for kids placed in foster care is in short supply, Smith said.
“(We need) really skilled, well-paid community based resource parents, or to the largest extent possible we keep kids within their family,” Smith said.
Smith is familiar with the state’s narrative: Kids’ needs are so complex that there isn’t anywhere else to put them, except a hotel or congregate care. And she said, she agrees, the state does struggle to find places to put kids, but that shouldn’t mean they end up lingering in a hotel room or shoved into congregate care programs that aren’t right for them.
“I think about all of the risks we were trying to mitigate when we do a removal in the first place,” Smith said. “So, we’re going to try and prevent them from being the victim of witnessing domestic violence. We’re going to try and prevent them from being assaulted or physically abused. We’re going to try and prevent them from being neglected. Then they end up experiencing those things in care, either in a hotel or congregate care or sometimes even in a foster home. So it kind of makes you wonder, what are we actually doing here?”
One of the most universally agreed upon ways to increase foster care parent capacity is to reimburse people who offer it.
The current rate for foster care parents can range depending on the age and needs of the children in care, but the base payment for providing care is $693 a month for children ages 0 to 5; $733 per month for kids ages 6 to 12 and $795 a month for children ages 13 to 20.
The Legislature approved a rate reimbursement increase this session, which advocates believe could help but it is still shockingly lower than the $2,560 per night cost (which includes lodging, staffing and food) to house a child in temporary lodging.
“Putting aside the humanitarian concerns in this case, “temporary lodging” is financially wasteful,” lawyers for the Oregon Law Center, a nonprofit that provides free legal services for vulnerable groups, wrote.
Carlson, the attorney for Youth, Rights & Justice, said paying foster care parents more and offering them more support and training would help with recruitment.
The state also needs to provide culturally competent support systems.
“There is a significant racial disparity in the kids spending extremely long times in hotels,” Carlson said. “The kids who are being placed in hotels are disproportionately Black and brown children and the kids who are staying in hotels for months who are languishing there are disproportionately Black and brown children.”
Carlson said at this point advocates are worried the practice of placing kids in hotels is now entrenched.
“When it began in 2016, 2017, it was an anomaly,” she said. “And now there is a process, a procedure to place kids in hotels … it’s become a normal option for caseworkers.”