Oregon lawmakers questioned Child Welfare officials in a hearing Thursday. They wanted to know why the number of foster care children being sent out-of-state skyrocketed and how a 9-year-old could be sent to Montana for six months and never be checked on by a caseworker.
“Something here has gone very, very wrong,” said Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, who chairs the Senate Committee on Human Services and convened the hearing. “We cannot ignore it and we have to keep this issue front and center until we are satisfied each of these kids are safe.”
There are 85 foster care kids from Oregon currently in out-of-state facilities.
Sen. Gelser said when she first received the list of the providers housing Oregon’s children, she started googling the names. Stories of licensing violations, arrests, sexual assaults and over use of restraints all started coming up. That raised a lot of red flags, she told the Child Welfare officials.
Related: Advocates Say Oregon Foster Child Abandoned, Drugged Out Of State
And then Gelser raised the most recent story of a 9-year-old who has been in a facility in Montana since October and no one from the state or any third-party contracted caseworker has been to see her. Because the child's mother and attorney remain engaged in the child's life, they discovered she was being injected with Benadryl, an antihistamine, to calm her down.
Gelser voiced concerns to Marilyn Jones, the head of Child Welfare, and Fariborz Pakseresht, the head of the state Department of Human Services, that this is just one child who we happen to have details about because her attorney was paying attention.
What about all the other kids, the state senator asked, who might not have attorneys who have the capacity to pay attention?
“On this one, we dropped the ball,” Pakseresht said. “I own the mistake. We did make a mistake.”
But other larger questions were also raised at the hearing, such as why Child Welfare officials never raised concerns about the growing number of children being sent out-of-state.
“It’s just a little disconcerting — and maybe you’re sensing some anger from this committee — this situation, I get people are working hard and they are stressed,” said Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend. “However, we failed these kids. The state failed these kids. The agency failed these kids and it’s wrong.”
Knopp asked why Child Welfare officials didn’t raise concerns to the Legislature earlier and why there was a need to send so many kids out-of-state. The state is spending about $35,000 a day on the foster care kids out of the state, according to Gelser.
Related: What Oregon Can Learn From Tennessee's Child Welfare Approach
“I don’t think there is anybody up here in this Legislature that isn’t incredibly concerned this happened and we didn’t know it was happening,” Knopp said.
“I hope in the future when you have issues that begin to arise like this, we will be informed very quickly and hopefully intervene and help find places for these kids in Oregon.”
Oregon Child Welfare officials have said they are working on a plan to bring the children home. They also announced in the legislative hearing that they plan to stop sending children to facilities owned by Acadia Healthcare, an organization facing several accusations of neglect and abuse, although some children still remain there.
State senators also asked the Child Welfare officials why the number of kids being sent out-of-state more than doubled since 2017.
Pakseresht, head of DHS, said part of the issue has been a reduced number of treatment beds available in Oregon.
Whitney Rogers, a foster youth, provided powerful testimony at the hearing.
She spoke of experiencing excessive use of restraints while in care and what it was like to be put into isolation. She said she was often afraid to tell her caseworker — who she saw infrequently — of any concerns because when the caseworker left, she would still be in the residential treatment facility.
She was not sent out-of-state, but she spoke of being in the system.
“The injection part, that hit me hard … because how it’s done is very violating,” she told lawmakers. “Your drawers are held down and you’re held down by three or four individuals and they inject you.”
It’s time for action, she told lawmakers. The system needs strengthening.
“I would love to see action for my fellow foster brothers and sisters … I look forward to the action to help save and care for and really love our youth,” she said.