State Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, would prefer to see all Oregon children who are placed in foster care stay close to home.

But if the state does send them across state lines, the senator is trying to ensure the out-of-state facilities meet the same requirements as those in the state.

Oregon state Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, pores over documents related to the state's foster care crisis at her dining room table in Corvallis, Ore., Monday, Nov. 11, 2019.

Oregon state Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, pores over documents related to the state’s foster care crisis at her dining room table in Corvallis, Ore., Monday, Nov. 11, 2019.

Bradley W. Parks/OPB

Gelser, who became a catalyst for bringing back the foster children placed in facilities out of state, is introducing legislation in the upcoming 35-day session to hold the facilities in other states to the same standards as those in Oregon.

“Basically, we’re saying Oregon will license any program whether in state or out of state,” she said.

Between 2016 and 2018, the number of foster children Oregon leaders sent to residential treatment facilities spiked. Children, some as young as 9 years old, were scattered across 16 different states. Once they were across state lines, Oregon had a difficult time comprehensively tracking the children and their well being. One child, who was 9 years old at the time, was largely abandoned by state officials charged with her care and sometimes drugged in an out-of-state facility. Others have shared stories of assault and neglect.

Gelser’s legislation would require any out-of-state facility to allow Oregon regulators inside the facility. The bill would also create other safeguards to ensure the facility meets Oregon’s licensing standards.

For example, in Oregon a facility housing foster care children can’t restrict access from a trusted guardian, caseworker or court-appointed advocate if the person wants to see the child.

In Montana, the facility housing the then-9-year-old girl wouldn’t let the girl’s attorney access the entire facility.

This bill would require placement sites, like the Montana facility, to follow Oregon rules allowing attorneys unrestricted access.

In Utah, where a brawl erupted and one teenager was assaulted two different times by two different staff members, several children in foster care were placed in the same facility with children who had criminal histories.

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Out Of State, Out Of Mind

Gelser’s legislation would keep foster care children with criminal backgrounds separate from other children, except for some cases. Overall, she said, there would be more transparency around who is living in each of the facilities before an Oregon child is placed there.

There are other requirements, too, such as a prohibition against contracted facilities requiring employees to sign non-disclosure agreements. The majority of Oregon youth sent out of state were at facilities owned primarily by one company, Sequel Youth and Family Services. At least one former employee at the company told OPB Sequel had asked him to sign a non-disclosure agreement. Gelser’s bill would require regular unannounced visits to the facilities, make abuse investigations public and help states who have children in the facilities communicate more easily with one another.

The bill extends beyond licensing requirements and would also allow any youth who finished high school while out of state to remain eligible for free community college tuition. Oregon’s free community college program known as “Oregon Promise” is only available to those who graduate from an in-state high school. Gelser’s bill would extend eligibility to teenagers living out of state who finish their high school requirements.

After news broke in February 2019 that Oregon was sending children in foster care across state lines, Gelser started holding legislative hearings to find out more. Over time it became evident that Oregon was sending foster youth to other states where they could offer little oversight or guarantee of safety. 

In July, Gelser made an unannounced visit to Northern Illinois Academy, a Sequel facility that was housing Oregon youth. She said she immediately witnessed a young person who was inappropriately restrained and soon discovered a 10-year-old was punched in the face by a staff member. Young people, ages from 9 to 12 years old, were physically restrained dozens of times, sometimes lasting as long as 33 minutes. She found some youth were placed in the facility for two- to three-year stretches.

Gelser raised alarms that the facility also wasn’t a Medicaid provider, and therefore didn’t have federal oversight despite presenting as one. Investigators from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services investigated. Not only did they find the facility didn’t have an active Medicaid provider agreement, but they also found disturbing conditions they deemed could place “all current and future residents at risk for serious harm.”

Oregon had three youth in foster care placed at the facility.

“It’s heartbreaking that these kids have suffered,” Gelser wrote on Twitter. “It’s mind boggling this was financed by (Oregon)… taxpayers. It’s unconscionable that some people profited from it. But because both NIA and Sequel are LLCs, we can’t know who profited or who to hold accountable.” 

Gelser’s bill would prevent the state from contracting with limited liability corporations, or LLCs. 

All told, through January 2020, the state has sent 162 children in foster care across state lines.