An Oregon state lawmaker wants to ensure children in foster care who are placed in hotels or short-term rentals receive the same protections as foster youths placed in homes.
State officials charged with caring for the children disagree.
In a legislative hearing this week, Oregon Department of Human Services officials resisted the idea of adding additional oversight for contractors hired to watch children in hotel rooms, despite a litany of concerns raised about the safety and well-being of vulnerable youth placed in the care of such providers.
The head of the state Child Welfare Division argued additional regulations would be too onerous.
“Currently many of our service providers see the child-caring agency licensing and regulatory environment to be a barrier as they may not be able to meet the extensive requirements to become licensed … and then remain in compliance,” Aprille Flint-Gerner, the director of the Child Welfare Division at DHS, told lawmakers on Wednesday.
Sen. Sara Gelser Blouin, D-Corvallis, who introduced the legislation to add additional oversight, said she was surprised by the pushback from the state agency, noting the agency’s position seems to be, “Give us [millions] for unregulated providers, trust us to manage it all and don’t ask any questions.”
The legislative discussion Wednesday largely centered around one provider, Dynamic Life Inc.
In November, an OPB investigation revealed the state was paying Dynamic Life, a religious nonprofit, more than 100 times the amount it pays foster care parents to watch children in unregulated short-term rental homes. Over about a 12-month period, the state paid Dynamic Life more than $7.8 million to provide support services to about 40 kids who needed them as well as temporary lodging. Shortly after OPB’s story was published, the state canceled the contract with Dynamic Life. But it has similar contracts with other third-party providers.
Flint-Gerner, the head of child welfare, suggested that rather than moving to license such providers, lawmakers should instead convene a task force to more fully vet the idea.
In the hearing, Gelser Blouin noted she had been talking to the agency about this issue for months already.
“The reason this is important is that right now we have kids that have been harmed by this practice,” Gelser Blouin told Flint-Gerner. “We have money that has been sent out without accountability.”
Several attorneys who represent kids placed in foster care testified in favor of regulating providers like Dynamic Life.
Kathleen Strek, an attorney who represented a child placed in the nonprofit’s care, said it was difficult to have a private phone call with her client while the teenager lived there. Strek testified to lawmakers that Dynamic Life staff forced her client to put the phone on speaker so they could listen, or they taped the call. Strek said she had voiced “numerous concerns” about Dynamic Life and was “perplexed” by the agency’s plea to avoid licensing such providers.
“I don’t understand why we should exempt organizations like Dynamic Life from requirements other child-caring agencies must meet,” Strek said. “We are talking about the most vulnerable kids in the state.”
Licensed child-caring agencies must allow kids to speak freely with their attorneys, for example.
“And the argument that if we don’t lower the bar … we won’t have participating providers, doesn’t work for me,” Strek said, nodding to the Child Welfare Division’s concern that there is already a workforce shortage and not enough providers.
Emails obtained by OPB in a recent records request also revealed several Dynamic Life employees were physically restraining kids in their care without the proper training.
“A lack of therapeutic services across the state for kids in crisis is a real and present issue,” said Annette Smith, a court-appointed public defender who also had clients placed in Dynamic Life’s care. “But the state shouldn’t be requesting the ability to contract with largely unvetted and unlicensed and untrained providers to serve these exceptionally vulnerable youth.”
Representatives from Dynamic Life did not testify at the hearing. The company’s former president said he was no longer with the nonprofit and a phone number on their website was disconnected.
Dynamic Life an outlier
Dynamic Life’s $7.8 million contract didn’t go unnoticed.
April Johnson, the CEO and founder of Youth Unlimited, has been a licensed child care provider with the state since 2015.
Her nonprofit recruits, trains and certifies foster parents. It also provides respite care and helps create therapeutic foster homes for kids with high needs placed in care.
In many situations, the services she provides are similar to what Dynamic Life provided, but she is considered a licensed child care provider.
She was shocked to read in the OPB article how much the state was paying Dynamic Life for their services.
The state contacted Johnson in November to see if her organization could provide care for a high-needs child one weekend every month to give the adoptive parents a breather. State officials offered Johnson an overnight rate of $350.
Johnson replied and said the rate the state offered her wouldn’t cover costs, noting she would be relying on certified, trained on-call staff who are paid $30 an hour. Johnson asked for a rate of $1,000.
“I know this kiddo and he needs a team of support,” Johnson wrote in an email in November.
Twelve minutes after Johnson sent the email, a state child welfare program coordinator responded.
“Unfortunately,” the state employee wrote, the agency was “unable to agree to that rate,” adding they would “seek other options to meet [the child’s] needs.”
Dynamic Life was paid up to $2,916 per day for every child placed in their care. Johnson knew the same kid the state had asked her to help had previously been in Dynamic Life’s care.
“There wasn’t even a discussion,” Johnson, who is Black, told OPB. “How are you not going to pay me properly to take care of this youth, but you’ll pay this white man $3,000 a day, for the same kid?”
Nathan Webber, a former pastor based in Keizer, started Dynamic Life.
Johnson also was surprised to see the rate Dynamic Life offered its staff, those charged with overseeing the children placed in care. One job posting advertised paying staff $16.50 an hour.
“Why are we a licensed agency with a book of regulations we have to follow and we’re unable to reimburse our folks in a meaningful way so they can afford to live in Oregon,” Johnson said, “and he’s making the kind of money we dream of making so we can offer attractive salaries and provide services for our kids?”