Washington state has removed all their foster youth from a for-profit facility in St. George, Utah after becoming concerned for the children’s safety.

After learning of a brawl, which erupted on the school’s campus, and a subsequent visit by Utah’s state licensing department, Washington officials decided to remove their children. Utah officials cited a long list of violations, including staff humiliating and degrading youth. 

“We made the decision to remove all our youth from the Red Rock Canyon School because of safety concerns based on the Utah licensing visit that occurred after the incident that’s been referred to as a riot or brawl,” said Debra Johnson with the Washington State Department of Children, Youth and Families.

As of last Friday, Oregon had 15 foster children still at the school in Utah.

Oregon officials said they are also working to bring the remaining children back to the state, but it’s unclear how long it will take.

This is not the first time Washington officials have moved swiftly to remove children from an out-of-state treatment facility due to safety concerns, while Oregon’s foster youth remained. After a report showed that Clarinda Academy, in Iowa, was causing harm to the youth who were placed there, Washington stopped sending children in their custody to the facility.

Oregon still has two foster youth placed at Clarinda Academy, including one who was recently beat up by other students at the facility. The youth was sent to the emergency room last week due to a deep laceration on his chin.

Clarinda Academy and Red Rock Canyon school are owned by the same parent company, Sequel Youth and Family Services.

At a legislative hearing on Tuesday, Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, who chairs the Committee on Human Services, asked Child Welfare officials about the safety of Oregon children who are placed in Sequel facilities.

“Is there a reason why our kids are safer than the Washington kids there?” Gelser asked.

Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, chairs the Committee on Human Services.

Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, chairs the Committee on Human Services.

Kaylee Domzalski/OPB

Later, she followed up: “Do you think our kids are safe?”

Deputy Child Welfare Director Jana McLellan said she has not been to the Iowa facility, but from what staff have said after their visits, she thinks children are safe.

Last week, McLellan was asked about discrepancies between her staff’s reports of the Red Rock Canyon facility and those from the state of Utah. Her staff touted yoga and music offerings, while the state of Utah’s description at the same time included reports of children being put in chokeholds until they were knocked unconscious. McLellan said at the time she was overly trusting of assurances from the for-profit program.  

“We were not as knowledgeable about what was going on,” McLellan said last week.

As concerns grew about the safety of children sent out-of-state, Sen. Gelser has held weekly legislative hearings to question Child Welfare officials on their plans to bring the children back to Oregon.

At nearly every hearing, they emphasize the children they are sending out of state are the hardest children to place.

So much so, they said on Tuesday, that they wanted to stop calling them “foster children.”

“So, we have shifted to (calling them) youth in the care of Child Welfare,” said Sara Fox, who oversees the program sending foster children to the for-profit locked facilities located in other states.

Sen. Gelser’s voice wavered when she heard of the agency’s decision to re-label the kids in their care.

“These are just kids. Every single one of them is a kid,” she said.

“Every week there is one of these kids who (the state) has taken from their families and something bad happens to them in places that happen to be owned by the same people and changing what we call them … appears to take some of their humanity away from them,” she said. 

Oregon Child Welfare officials said they have brought back 25% of the foster care children who were out-of-state in the past three months, after media reports and increased legislative scrutiny. 

In March, there were 88 foster care children in out-of-state facilities. There are currently 64.

In the past eleven days, Oregon has managed to remove 10 youth from Red Rock Canyon School. Most of them were brought back to Oregon.

Washington had four foster youth placed at the school in Red Rock Canyon. Washington is also working to bring all of their children in out-of-state facilities back home. The state recently increased the rates which they pay behavioral treatment places to increase capacity within their state. At one point Washington had about 100 children placed out-of-state. Now it’s about 40. 

Oregon Child Welfare officials admitted in Tuesday’s hearing that one child was returned to Oregon without their knowledge.

McLellan, the deputy director, said they will once again “round up the troops” and figure out “how we dropped the ball” in not knowing where “our kids” are.  

In April it was discovered that a 9-year-old Oregon girl in foster care had been largely abandoned by Oregon state Child Welfare officials charged with her care. 

McLellan said the child’s caseworker knew where the youth was, but the information didn’t make it to the central office.