UPDATE 10:12 a.m. PT) – A national advocacy group filed a class-action lawsuit Tuesday against the Oregon Department of Human Services, alleging the agency revictimizes children in its foster care system and has failed to address documented problems for at least a decade.
The nonprofit A Better Childhood filed the lawsuit along with Disability Rights Oregon and lawyers from the firm Davis Wright Tremaine.
“The system is so overwhelmed, under resourced and ineffective that older children and children with even relatively mild behavior problems are often not placed by DHS in family homes with necessary supports and services,” the lawsuit reads.
“Instead, DHS places these children in inappropriate institutions, ships them out of state where they are placed in costly and questionable for-profit congregate programs that do not address their needs, or largely abandons them so they wind up in homeless shelters or on the streets.”
The complaint also says the state’s foster care system is so bad it can’t accurately track how dysfunctional its services are.
The goal of Wyatt B. v. Brown is to transform the state’s child welfare system, the filers said in a statement, and hold DHS accountable for taking care of the state’s vulnerable children.
The lawsuit names Gov. Kate Brown, Director of the Oregon Department of Human Services Fariborz Pakseresht, Director of Child Welfare Marilyn Jones and the Oregon Department of Human Services as defendants.
The lawyers are calling for improvements in the state's system, including hiring more caseworkers to lower the caseloads and requiring that children are assessed within 30 days of entering the system.
They also call on the state to protect LGBTQ children and ask them to be placed in homes where their gender identity is not considered immoral or undesirable.
“It is time that Oregon is held accountable,” the lawsuit reads.
Marcia Lowry, the executive director of A Better Childhood, said when they first started investigating Oregon’s foster care system a year ago she wasn’t sure if they would file a lawsuit.
But it was worse than she expected.
“I don’t think there is any question the system is further damaging children,” she said.
Lowry said she has filed similar lawsuits about 20 other times and the systems ultimately change for the better. In both New Jersey and Tennessee, in particular, she said, the lawsuits prompted the systems to make large, systemic changes.
“It is possible to fix these systems, it’s just a lot of work. This forces the state to pay attention to the plight of these children,” she said.
The state of Oregon is currently spending a lot of money on unproductive things, Lowry said, while at the same time they have not developed appropriate placements for children. One of their clients, who is currently in the state system, is in a homeless shelter for the seventh time, she said.
“Money is only a part of it,” Lowry said. “The state of Oregon is spending a fortune on unproductive things, sending them to out of state institutions … that are not good places for kids and almost $40 million so far on damage actions … I did not anticipate the problems were going to be as big as they are in Oregon.”
The Oregon Department of Human Services responded to the lawsuit, saying it shares the same vision of a foster care system where all children are safe.
“We take the care of our foster care children seriously and work with urgency and diligence to achieve this goal.”
The agency says over the past 18 months it has been building a foundation to address many of the goals highlighted in the lawsuit.
The lawsuit is on behalf of ten children, whose names listed here are pseudonyms, including;
- Wyatt, who is 3, and his younger brother, Noah, who is 1 year old, were first taken into state custody less than one year ago. Neither of them had any behavioral issues or special needs, except Wyatt has a heart condition that requires medicine prescribed to him by a cardiologist. The state's Child Welfare office removed the children from their parent's custody due to allegations of domestic violence and substance abuse. Once in the state's custody, the brothers were moved to different foster homes constantly, according to a civil lawsuit filed on Tuesday. Sometimes they were moved twice within a 24-hour period. They have been in six or seven different placements. At one point, the brothers were separated and that's when it was discovered that the older brother's prescription heart medicine was being given to his younger brother. The younger child was hospitalized. The older child was not taken to the doctor despite missing doses of a medicine that is necessary for his heart to function, according to the lawsuit. It would be the first of two documented times the child's medication would be overlooked. The children's mother, who was appearing for her scheduled visits, was never notified. The children had never spent time away from their mother before the removal. After they were put into care, the oldest boy exhibited frequent fits and the younger child experienced night terrors, according to the lawsuit.
- Kylie, 7, and Alec, 8, are also siblings. They have been in the care of DHS since January 2019 after allegations of neglect and abuse. The state could not find a substance abuse program for their mother to enter, according to the lawsuit. Both Kylie and Alec are very bonded to their mother and removal was traumatic. In two months, Kylie was moved to five different places, Alec to four. Kylie ran away and went back to her mother's house at one point, according to the lawsuit. Once they were dropped off with a foster family on a Friday afternoon. The new foster parents didn't have their last name or their insurance information. When the foster parents tried to take Kylie to the hospital because they were concerned she would hurt herself, they were unable to fill out the appropriate information and could not reach anyone at DHS. Both children also had lice, visibly crawling on their heads, which was not treated for six months.
- Unique L., is a 9-year-old whose mother was diagnosed with a significant mental health condition, was verbally abusive to her children and kept them out of school. Unique was also placed in several foster care homes and treatment centers, including the emergency department of a hospital. The state eventually sent her to a locked facility in Montana. The 90-pound girl has had tantrums that resulted in 4-person holds, 2-person holds and seclusion, according to the lawsuit. She was also injected with antihistamines to calm her down unless she agrees to take the medicine orally. She is also on a course of oral medications, such as anti-psychotic and anti-convulsant/anti-epileptic although she doesn't experience seizures, according to the lawsuit. She is also receiving little therapeutic interventions to promote self-regulation and skill development, the lawsuit reads. She has also not been visited for at least six months from anyone from the state of Oregon. DHS pays $330 a day for her care.
- Simon is a 13-year-old boy who frequently had facial bruising and black eyes, scratches, bruises on his body, cut and swollen lips, according to the lawsuit. Simon told state officials they were caused by his father, beginning in 2010. More than 35 reports from mandated reporters have been made about Simon. In 2012, the state removed Simon from his home after he said he was sexually abused by a relative. He was later returned to his home. There was no effort to investigate the claims or provide counseling, according to the lawsuit. The abuser also attended the same school as Simon. The school reported Simon was credible and there was every reason to believe the abuse was happening. The school said Simon started defecating in his pants after seeing his abuser in the hallways. He also regularly arrived at school with feces in his pants, apparently in order to protect himself against further abuse. The school counselor started to treat Simon, writing, "It's difficult to treat a child with these issues who lives in a home that is not safe, supportive and sanitary." DHS closed the case, according to the lawsuit, and Simon remained at home for another year. Eventually, he was removed in 2017 and put into a locked facility. The state continued to struggle to find a place for Simon and they never created a plan for his behavioral and mental health needs.