Over the past several years, workers with the Oregon Department of Human Services grew increasingly reliant on a private, for-profit company to house the state’s most vulnerable children in out-of-state facilities.
And once Sequel Youth and Family Services earned Oregon’s business, emails show, the state placed a remarkable amount of trust in the company making money off the state to care for the children.
The result is a litany of unsettling stories of children in the state’s care winding up abused, neglected and generally left to fend for themselves far from home. OPB reviewed police reports, case files and thousands of emails exchanged between Oregon child welfare workers and employees at Sequel Youth and Family Services, which housed the majority of youth sent out of state.
Here is what we found:
- The number of Oregon children sent to out of state facilities skyrocketed between 2016 and 2018, increasing by 168%. That spike came in the wake of public outrage that some kids in foster care were sleeping in motel rooms and on state office floors because Oregon, like many states, does not have enough foster homes.
- Starting in 2015, Sequel marketing executives put a hard sell on Oregon for its business. They visited Salem and kept up regular email exchanges with state workers. Where leaders in Oregon and other states saw foster care systems in crisis, Sequel executives saw growth opportunities. In a 2017 pitch to private equity investors, Sequel noted the company had "favorable supply/demand dynamics" in its corner due to a "significant reduction in inpatient beds at state and local levels."
- The marketing strategy worked. Emails show Oregon officials grew remarkably familiar with Sequel employees. One Oregon child welfare worker expressed thanks for how one case was handled by sending cookies to a Sequel admissions coordinator. In a 2018 exchange, the child welfare manager who oversaw out-of-state placements joked in emails that the state should find a way to get a Sequel marketing official move to Oregon.
That familiarity had practical impacts as well. For most of the time Oregon children were out of state, child welfare officials had no centralized system for tracking reports of abuse. When Oregon wanted to hire a social worker to visit out-of-state children, to ensure Oregon children were being treated well in Sequel facilities, they asked Sequel for suggestions of whom to hire.
When state Sen. Sara Gelser wrote state officials with concerns about the safety of children in an Idaho campus owned by Sequel, an Oregon child welfare official forwarded the email — titled "CONFIDENTIAL correspondence" — to a Sequel marketing executive. Gelser never got a response to her questions.
- Despite the reports of abuse and Sequel shuttering some of their schools amid controversy, the company still wanted to be in business with Oregon. The state is now admitting mistakes, and state leaders have written emails pushing to cultivate in-state resources to house Oregon's most vulnerable children.
Out Of State, Out Of Mind