West and Rummell launch Oregon Foster Families First

WILSONVILLE, Ore.—Marriage equality plaintiffs Ben West and Paul Rummell, who helped overturn Oregon’s marriage equality ban, adopted their son JayQuan in 2014. JayQuan, now 12, was in Oregon’s foster care system when they first took him into their home.

Now, they are launching a non-partisan non-profit called Oregon Foster Families First. The organization, they say, will take on the status quo. Children in Oregon’s foster care system are being neglected, traumatized, and both physically and sexually abused.

West and Rummell released the following statement:

“We owe it to the children in our state to end the status quo and hold politicians and failed leaders accountable for neglecting our most vulnerable. Oregon Foster Families First will give a voice to all of the innocent victims either silenced or ignored in our state. Oregonians demand change now, not later.”

The non-partisan organization is working on advocacy and education to help raise awareness of the crisis here in Oregon, but West and Rummell say awareness is not enough. The group will be working to address substantive policy changes to help improve the state’s foster care system using the secretary of state’s audit as a foundation. The group has connected with foster care advocates and influencers as well as elected officials and agency heads.

On Mon., May 21, Oregon Foster Families First will be holding a rally at the Statehouse at 1:00 PM and will be announcing more details in coming days. The bipartisan list of guest speakers includes West and Rummell, Secretary of State Dennis Richardson, Democrat attorney and education advocate Kim Sordyl.

 

For follow-up commentary or for more information on the May 21 rally please contact Jonathan Lockwood at 971-645-2099.

Background

Oregon’s foster care system is troubled[1] and it is literally killing children.[2][3]

  • In 2016, there were 11,191 children recorded as spending at least one day in the foster care system for the whole year, and a daily average of 7,600 per the secretary of state’s audit.
  • In 2016, about 9 of every 1,000 children in Oregon were in foster care, nearly double the national average and the amount of available homes has decreased by 15 percent. And per the audit, “in 2016, about 7,600 children were in out-of-home care on any given day.”
  • Oregon auditors revealed caseworkers dumped 189 children in hotels and other unsafe “housing” between September 2016 and July 2017.[4] And Oregon temporarily lodged 213 children in motels for at least a single night with child welfare staff in 2017.[5]

If children are not killed, they are starved, sexually abused and physically beaten. Providers and parents in the system are literally criminals.

  • At one point the Department of Human Services (DHS) fired two of the agency’s highest ranking senior child welfare officials Jerry Waybrant, the agency’s chief operating officer, and Lois Day, the agency’s current child welfare director. The ousting followed a $60 million lawsuit stating officials subjected two small children under its watch to endure “severe starvation.”[6]
  • Oregon workers subjected children to a mold-ridden home that reeked of cat urine, and the foster parents physically and sexually abused them, per a $100 million civil rights lawsuit recently filed in federal court. DHS refused to comment to Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB). DHS tried to cover up the abuse.
  • In 2011, Oregon placed a 2-year-old boy and 5-year-old girl in a dangerous home, with adults who had no parenting experience but had a history of familial abuse. The 2-year-old boy showed signs of abuse with bruises and cuts. The 5-year-old girl showed signs of bruises, urinary dysfunction and vaginal issues within one month of being placed in the home, and pleaded to be placed with her biological mother saying “she wished she were dead.” In 2013, family members of these children urged Oregon officials to save the children. But their pleas were met with DHS placing three more children in this home. One of the girls shortly displayed signs of abuse. In 2013, the 10-month-old girl, was admitted to the hospital. with fractures in every limb. DHS tried to cover it up and went out of its way to get doctors to declare the girl had “brittle bone” disease. But doctors at Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU) proved this was a lie. One of these parents admitted to sexually abusing and sodomizing the 5-year-old girl in his custody.[7]
  • One provider Give Us This Day faced allegations of $2 million in misspent money and children were subjected to mold, hunger, inappropriate force and a lack of bedding.[8]
  • In 2009, it was exposed the Portland foster care program Give Us This Day was operating illegally and every staffer had a criminal record.[9]
  • Many of the most serious complaints leveled against Give Us This Day went unchecked. The words “no investigation” followed allegations including “anal rape, sexual fondling, children accused of having sex after being found in the same bed, a lack of supervision from foster parents, bruises and death threats.”[10]

Oregon’s foster care system is hurting minorities and LGBTQ+ children.

  • Oregon paid $750,000 to three children allegedly abused. From the secretary of state’s audit, the suit “alleged children were living in deplorable conditions and could not communicate abuse inflicted on them by another child to their foster parents because they did not speak the same language. The suit alleged children were living in deplorable conditions and could not communicate abuse inflicted on them by another child to their foster parents because they did not speak the same language. In addition, they had no caseworker visits in the eight months of their placement, despite rules requiring visits every 30 days.”

Federal audits have repeatedly dinged the department for falling behind benchmarks.[11]

  • Months after the Give Us This Day outrage it was revealed Oregon “ignored reports of abuse allegations for more than a decade.” Oregon has now paid millions of dollars in settlements involving abuse, in some cases fatal, over recent years.[12]
  • The Scotts Valley School provider south of Eugene, “received a letter from the state that mentioned children enduring hunger, bedbug bites, vulgar nicknames such as ‘orphan whore’ and punishment that involved silently facing a wall for 12 hours a day.”[13]
  • In 2016, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) “issued a subpoena for all state records dealing with Give Us This Day since 2007.”

Children advocates are hamstrung. Attorneys for children and parents in Oregon’s foster care system are suffering under unsustainable caseloads and a system that dis-incentivizes the work necessary to vigorously advocate for their clients.[14]

  • Unworkable caseloads are a reality for too many lawyers in Oregon because compensation is tied to the number of represented children. On average, these attorneys receive $830 per foster child. But they don’t get paid to “take a case to trial, attend key child welfare meetings, visit a child at home or check whether the child has received necessary evaluations.”[15]

A landmark audit by the Oregon secretary of state’s office could make all the difference. But it will take the will and bipartisan collaboration to substantively address our state’s broken foster care system.[16]

  • Oregon’s foster care system is plagued by “bad morale and high turnover rates among caseworkers, a shortage of foster parents with no plan to increase the number, no centralized system of reporting for child abuse, and no successful follow-through on many crucial recommendations from earlier audits.”[17]
  • Per the audit, as of Nov. 2017, “Oregon employed just over 2,100 child welfare field staff, including approximately 1,300 caseworkers and 800 support, supervisory, and program staff.”

The audit’s key findings, directly from the secretary of state’s office, included:[18]

 

OR-Kids, an electronic case management data system, is outdated, time-consuming, and difficult for caseworkers to navigate. It still has over 1,000 outstanding fixes waiting to be addressed, some of which date back several years. The development of the OR-Kids system cost the agency $74 million – 100 percent more than originally projected—and appears to be fatally flawed.

Available foster homes have declined by 15 percent since 2011, and the number of experienced foster homes that serve the general population of foster children has declined by 55 percent. Foster parents struggle with limited guidance and support and are leaving the system faster than they can be recruited. Oregon’s foster children have diverse needs and backgrounds, and DHS needs a statewide recruitment and retention program that draws and retains diverse foster parents.

The agency lacks crucial data on foster home capacity which is needed to support recruitment efforts.

Child Welfare field offices are severely and chronically understaffed and administrative burdens continue to grow. Statewide, Child Welfare field staffing is short approximately 770 staff—the current number of caseworkers is 35 percent below the level needed to manage current caseloads.

Caseloads are not reliably tracked centrally or at the district level, and the central office does not monitor the impact of turnover and leave time on caseload burdens and staffing allocations.

 

[1] “Oregon foster care system troubled,” Corvallis Gazette-Times, May 6, 2018.

[2] “Dysfunction, missed steps hampered Oregon investigation of Hart family abuse allegations,” The Oregonian, May 5.

[3] “Oregon had Minnesota child abuse report before investigating Hart family,” The Oregonian, Apr. 26, 2018.

[4] “Oregon officials agree to reduce the use of hotels as temporary homes for foster children,” The Oregonian, Feb. 27, 2018.

[5] “Settlement: Oregon Will House Fewer Foster Kids in Hotels,” The Associated Press, Feb. 28, 2018

[6] “Foster care scandal: Human services director fires top child welfare officials,” The Oregonian, Mar. 18, 2016.

[7] “Lawsuit Alleges Oregon Failed To Care For Foster Kids,” OPB, May 3, 2018.

[8] “Foster care scandal: Human services director fires top child welfare officials,” The Oregonian, Mar. 18, 2016.

[9] “DHS ignored facility’s lack of license, criminal records of staff,” East Oregonian, Jan. 6, 2016

[10] “Foster care scandal: Oregon releases years of shocking abuse complaints,” The Oregonian, Jan. 12, 2016

[11] “Foster care scandal: Human services director fires top child welfare officials,” The Oregonian, Mar. 18, 2016.

[12] “Foster care scandal deepens: ‘Every single staff person has a criminal record,’” The Oregonian, Jan. 9, 2016.

[13]  “Foster care scandal deepens: ‘Every single staff person has a criminal record,’” The Oregonian, Jan. 9, 2016.

[14] “Pilot program cuts caseloads for foster system lawyers, The Oregonian, May 6, 2018.

[15] “Oregon pilot program for foster system lawyers ‘wildly successful’ but limited,” The Oregonian, May 4, 2018.

[16] “How A Landmark Audit Could Change Oregon’s Child Welfare Department,” OPB, Feb. 5, 2018.

[17] “Audit Finds Wealth Of Problems With Oregon’s Child Welfare Office,” OPB, Jan. 31, 2018.

[18] “Secretary of State Dennis Richardson Releases Audit of Foster Care Services,” Ore. secretary of state press release, Jan. 31, 2018.