When news broke that Oregon was sending foster care children to out-of-state facilities at an increasing rate, Child Welfare director Marilyn Jones responded by writing an opinion piece assuring members of the public: "We know where they are every day, we know how they are doing."
Jones also promised the state was working with independent, third-party professionals “to monitor the child’s well-being and conduct, in-person meetings every 30 days.”
That’s not true.
First, reports surfaced of a 9-year-old Oregon girl who was dropped off at a facility in Montana and then never received a visit from a third-party contractor or Child Welfare official for six months. She was also repeatedly injected with drugs aimed at making her lethargic.
Now, the agency has reported another 9-year-old, with an intellectual disability, was in a facility in Illinois from August 2018 until February 2019 without being visited by an Oregon caseworker or any other caseworker.
More than 80 Oregon children in foster care are placed out of state.
“Two children is too many children to fall through the cracks,” Jones told OPB in an interview Wednesday. “I can tell you we are immediately reacting to that. … We are trying our best to do right by every child.”
Children With Disabilities Sent Out Of State
In a heated legislative hearing this week, Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, the chair of the Senate Human Services Committee, grilled Child Welfare officials.
“How do you protect an intellectually disabled 9-year-old child sent thousands of miles away in a locked facility with no one assigned to that child to have safe eyes on them?” Gelser asked.
It was also revealed there are currently seven Oregon children with intellectual or developmental disabilities in locked institutions out of state.
One is a 15-year-old who was placed out of state last month, after reports of abuse happening at the facilities surfaced. Another is a 17-year-old who has been in a facility in Arkansas for one year and seven months.
Oregon stopped institutionalizing children and adults with disabilities years ago.
Keeping Contact With Out-Of-State Facilities
Sara Fox, who oversees the out-of-state program, said the agency goes through the same process for each child before they are sent out of state. She said a committee meets twice a month with representatives from Child Welfare, the Oregon Health Authority and members of the Office of Developmental Disabilities who determine where a child will be placed.
“If and when all other options are exhausted in the state of Oregon and the committee is in agreement, they make a determination that an out-of-state recommendation is an option for the child,” Fox said. “At that point, the decision is taken at the court level. No youth leave without a court order signed by a judge.”
Child Welfare officials said they are in the midst of creating a centralized “tracker” to document when the children are seen by a state caseworker or a third-party contractor.
Jones said Child Welfare officials are also often checking up on the children over the phone. When asked if the 9-year-old in Illinois had calls placed on her behalf, the information was not readily available.
One month ago, OPB filed a records request asking for the dates and times when children in out-of-state facilities were visited by either a third-party independent contractor, a caseworker from Oregon or a member of the child’s family. The records request has yet to be filled.
After news of reported abuse happening in the institutions, Child Welfare officials said they are now sending caseworkers to all of the out-of-state facilities.
So far, Jones said, all the site visits have proved positive. She told lawmakers the kids are “doing pretty well” and working on their treatment plans.
Jones said she sent top officials to facilities in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Indiana and Idaho to check the facilities and see what kind of care the children are receiving.
“And we are looking in-depth at the [children’s] medical records because of the scrutiny … . So we can be assured children are going to facilities where they can be treated for their needs,” Jones said in a follow-up interview.
Legislators Press For Answers
Gelser, chair of the Senate Human Services Committee, has scheduled regular weekly hearings with Department of Human Services officials to get updates on children who have been sent out of state and also those placed in retrofitted jails, as first reported by The Oregonian/OregonLive.
The first hearing was tense.
Oregon Department of Human Services director Fariborz Pakseresht told Gelser the hearings shouldn’t be “public shaming sessions.”
This kind of interaction, he said, “is not helpful to our children, it is not helpful to our staff.”
Gelser fired back. Everyone has their line, she said.
“My line is when we are sending 9-year-olds away with no assistance and drugging them,” she said.
Gelser said she has lost confidence in the agency and told Pakseresht that she’s less worried about his state agency officials and more worried about the children who will never “get their childhoods back.”