A 9-year-old Oregon girl in foster care has been largely abandoned by state regulators charged with her care and sometimes drugged in an out-of-state facility, advocates say.
It's a case that illustrates the ongoing challenge lawmakers and state officials face as they work to find appropriate places of care for Oregon's most vulnerable children — and recover from years of scandal and allegations that kids are not being protected.
In October, two Oregon Child Welfare officials flew to Montana with the girl to drop her off at a 105-bed psychiatric residential treatment facility.
For six months, no one from Oregon’s Child Welfare office visited her.
State officials said they work with independent third-party contractors who check in on the more than 80 Oregon children in foster care placed in out-of-state facilities.
But there is no record of any contracted case worker checking on the 9-year-old child either, according to the girl’s attorney and a state senator.
In Oregon, the number of children being sent to out-of-state, privately run psychiatric and residential treatment facilities has more than doubled since 2017. There are currently more than 80 Oregon children in out-of-state facilities.
Chemical Injections Cause Concern
The 9-year-old child told her biological mother she was being given shots to calm her down, said Annette Smith, the child’s court-appointed public defender. The child has experienced trauma, Smith said, and has emotional and behavioral challenges. But she has not been diagnosed with a psychosis. Smith said she confirmed with the facility in Montana, owned by Acadia Healthcare, that they were giving the girl injections of Benadryl and other antihistamines when the girl misbehaved.
Smith and the girl’s mother voiced concerns that the facility was giving the child the idea that injections were a reasonable response when she struggles to control herself.
“She needs to learn coping skills and ways to calm her body that don’t use emergency injectables,” Smith said, adding both she and the girl’s mother became concerned for the child’s safety.
Smith also contacted state Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, who chairs the Senate Committee on Human Services and has been a vocal proponent of foster care changes, about the injections.
After the attorney and Gelser contacted Oregon’s Child Welfare officials, officials from Oregon’s Child Welfare asked the Montana facility to stop injecting the child, according to Smith and Gelser.
“It’s been 21 days since DHS was notified that a small child was being chemically restrained with injections, which you’re not supposed to do in Oregon facilities — and somehow she’s still there, and no one is going to check on her,” Gelser said. “We’re trusting the same facility that started abusing her in the first place. We’re trusting that they won’t do it anymore because we asked them nicely. That wouldn’t be enough for my kid.”
Gelser said she pressed Marilyn Jones, the head of Oregon Child Welfare, for information on who the state was contracting with to check on the child.
First, Gelser said, Jones gave her a name for a program that didn't exist in Montana.
After more pressing, the senator said, she was given another contact and reached someone who said they never made any face-to-face contacts with the children in facilities, despite what state officials say is supposed to happen.
“The attorney and the caseworker have both said there’s been no face-to-face visit,” Gelser said. “ … No one can tell me when someone last saw this child that wasn’t employed by the facility, and it is abundantly clear that no DHS employee has been to see her since she was left there in October.”
State officials declined to speak to this case, citing the child’s privacy. They also declined to say whether a third-party contractor has visited all of the children currently placed out-of-state.
“We hired a third-party contractor that are responsible for visiting them,” Department of Human Services spokesman Robert Oakes said. “It’s in their contract to visit them.”
Oregon Public Broadcasting filed a public records request last month seeking the contract of the third-party contractors but has not yet received the information.
Focused On Getting Home
Smith, the child’s attorney, said she can’t give away too many identifying details about the young girl to protect her privacy.
But here’s what she did say: “She is so fun. She is a bright-eyed, beautiful little blonde girl. She’s so creative. She’s artistic. She likes to sing and perform … She’s a special kid. She’s funny.”
Related: Oregon Sending Foster Children To Facilities Accused Of Abuse
And the girl is really focused on getting back home to Eugene.
“She tends to perseverate on contact with her family,” Smith said. “ … It’s probably the most important thing to [her], when she gets to see her mom and her sisters.”
Having the child out of state has restricted access by people who are engaged in the child’s well-being, Smith said. The child was placed in several foster and group homes before being sent out-of-state, and the state didn’t feel they had an appropriate place for her in Oregon.
“... It’s interrupted the ability to lay eyes on her and have that close interaction with her,” the lawyer said.
Like most public defenders, Smith has an overwhelming number of cases. Unlike a lot of public defenders who represent children in the system, she says she's committed to making face-to-face contact with each of her clients. She has visited the child in Montana once and tries to stay in contact with her client. A recent Oregonian article revealed some lawyers representing foster care children have never even talked to them.
Smith said when she first learned this child was being injected with antihistamines, she became concerned for the girl’s safety.
Now, state officials are working with Smith to bring the child back home. Not because she’s finished the treatment cycle in Montana, but because of the concerns raised by Smith.
It’s another move for a child who has already bounced around to more than a handful of homes in her nine years.
“Her being home means she will be safer and have more eyes on her, but it also means she has to start over, develop a new rapport, feel safe in a new setting,” Smith said. “ … But it does make me feel better she will be in Oregon.”
'We Need To Do A Better Job Taking Care Of You'
On Thursday, Sen. Gelser’s committee will hold a hearing focused on out-of-state placements.
“There is a point where you’re having conversations that are theoretical. And then there’s a point that it’s real. … There is a real child experiencing this,” Gelser said.
Later, she added: “If I [treated my child this way] would DHS come get my child from me? We wouldn’t tolerate this. We have taken these children from their families. We have said, ‘Your family can’t care for you and we’re putting you through the trauma of taking you into our care and … we need to do a better job taking care of you.’”
There are currently more than 80 Oregon foster children placed in out-of-state facilities. The majority are in facilities run by Alabama-based Sequel Youth and Family Services, others are placed in facilities overseen by Acadia Healthcare.
Related: What Oregon Can Learn From Tennessee's Child Welfare Approach
The state is also placing children with intellectual and developmental disabilities in the out-of-state treatment facilities. In Oregon, the state does not institutionalize people with disabilities.
Both companies have come under national scrutiny for the way the children in their care are treated.
Oregon is not the only state sending foster care children to the facilities.
An October 2018 report by the nonprofit Disability Rights Washington concluded that Washington’s use of out-of-state facilities to house foster children was “creating an unacceptably heightened risk of abuse and neglect” and causing more “harm to youth who have already suffered from multiple, prolonged, or chronic traumatic events.”
The children have been sent out-of-state primarily because Oregon does not have enough treatment beds to house them.
Oregon was sued for the practice of placing children in hotels and they have agreed to reduce the number of children in hotels. At about the same time, more children were being placed out-of-state and sent to retrofitted jails.
The care is costly. From October 2018 to December 2018, the state spent about $2.5 million on sending kids out-of-state.
Here’s how that looked in a three-month breakdown: In December 2018 the state spent more than $850,000 on costs associated with sending 83 people out-of-state. The monthly tally was similar for October of that year: about $826,000 for 73 children and November: $807,384 for 80 children.
Now, amid the latest round of pressure, state leaders say they have committed to having a roundtable discussion within 60 days to develop a plan to bring the out-of-state kids home.
Part of that plan, according to the spokesman with DHS, includes an updated needs and treatment plan assessment on all the children placed out-of-state.
“We want an update on what everyone’s needs are to treat,” Oakes said, saying the state will be working with a contractor to “complete clinical reviews of every child with an out-of-state placement.”
When asked why this wasn’t done before the children are placed in other states, Oakes said the agency is responding to “public concern and legislative attention on how to best serve the youth.”
The timeline on when the state hopes to have the children back in the state is unclear.
Gov. Kate Brown said she hopes it’s soon.
“Sending foster children out-of-state is a last resort, but it is still unacceptable. DHS is working on a plan to bring all children in out-of-state facilities back to Oregon, and I expect them to move swiftly on that plan,” the governor said in a statement.