DHS Fails to Protect Vulnerable Foster Children… Again
Numerous children in Oregon’s foster care system were placed in the care of unlicensed caretakers, forced to stay in hotels and allowed to run away. One young girl even tried to throw herself out of a third-story window. Why hasn’t Governor Brown kept her promise to keep these children safe?
Dozens of Oregon children still staying in hotels while awaiting foster care
By Maxine Bernstein / The Oregonian / OregonLive
In the past seven months, more than 130 Oregon children have stayed in hotels or offices, sometimes accompanied by unlicensed caretakers, as they await permanent foster care placement, including a 5-year-old who was at a hotel for 55 days, a new federal court filing shows.
More than a dozen of the children were 5 or younger. One girl tried to throw herself out a third-story window. A boy with mental health and behavioral issues locked his caretakers out of his hotel room for an hour and others tried to run away, according to state Department of Human Services records cited in federal court.
Lawyers for the nonprofit advocacy group CASA for Children and two young girls in state custody filed a lawsuit last September against the Human Services Department, alleging the state’s temporary lodging practice violated the children’s civil rights.
Two months later, the suit was placed on hold as the sides participated in settlement talks. But the plaintiffs broke off negotiations in May and cited the latest data in a new filing Tuesday as they seek to move ahead with the suit to block the state from placing abused or neglected foster children in hotels, agency offices, juvenile detention centers or other unlicensed locations.
They’ve asked a judge to characterize their suit as a class action, identifying the class as all foster children in department custody at risk of such temporary placements.
State data from last Nov. 18 through June 1 reveals a “practice contrary to child welfare norms, a practice that is harmful in myriad ways, a practice its own director describes as inappropriate for even one child,” but one that “has become entrenched,” attorney Emily Teplin Fox of the Oregon Law Center wrote on behalf of the plaintiffs.
The state has countered that such temporary placements are “emergency lodging” and that any “class” description is unwarranted and overbroad. It has moved to dismiss the suit. Oral arguments on the dismissal request are set for July 21 in U.S. District Court in Portland.
The two children, identified in court papers as A.R. and B.C., and CASA for Children allege that the temporary stays violate the state’s duty to provide “minimally adequate care” to foster children under the 14th Amendment.
During more than five months of negotiations, both sides entered into an interim settlement. The Department of Human Services agreed not to house foster children in department offices and to limit temporary lodging in hotels and prohibit keeping children in offices, hospitals without cause or juvenile detention facilities without criminal charges.
But state lawyers said the plaintiffs later decided to reject the agreement and notified the department that they intended to move forward with the lawsuit.
State lawyers argue that the lawsuit is moot since the department adopted the new policy on Nov. 28. They also say neither A.R. and B.C. are “realistically threatened with being temporarily lodged in a hotel” and lack standing for a class action certification.
The state has 7,424 foster care children in department custody with a “small minority” who have experienced or are at risk of experiencing temporary lodging, wrote Carla A. Scott, an assistant attorney general with the Oregon Department of Justice.
“The fact that a limited number of children may experience temporary lodging in a hotel each night is not enough to show that the same is likely to happen to thousands of other children,” Scott wrote.
The state further notes that some foster care teenagers sometimes choose to stay at a hotel and reject a potential foster care home placement.
The plaintiffs counter that the state numbers are misleading. A better comparison, they contend, would be to look at the number of children placed in hotels or offices compared to new foster care placements in any given week. They’re still seeking those numbers from the state.
“Defendants’ own data demonstrates this lodging is neither ‘temporary’ nor ’emergency,”’ Fox wrote.
While they applaud the halt to some of the temporary lodgings under the new policy, the plaintiffs want a court-ordered injunction to permanently bar the department from putting children in hotels, offices, hospitals or juvenile detention.
“Defendants cannot moot or narrow this case by the post-filing ‘voluntary cessation’ of some but not all of their illegal practices,” Fox wrote.
The average time a foster child is held outside of a foster care placement in temporary lodging was about 20 days, the plaintiffs found.
Although some children will live out of an office or hotel for a day or two, other children have had stays ranging from 48 to 85 days. “Eighty-five days constitutes nearly three months of what defendants call ‘temporary emergency lodging,”’ Fox wrote.
A University of Oregon law school graduate serving as an intern at Youth, Rights & Justice compiled the data.
Based on seven months of reports, she found: The average child sleeping in a hotel or office is between 11 and 12 years old. Children often are placed in a hotel or office building once, though others have been placed in such locations multiple times. For example, four children in the last seven months stayed in a hotel four times and one child stayed in a hotel seven times. Most are from Multnomah County.
Adults assigned to be with the children in hotels aren’t necessarily licensed foster parents but caseworkers or church volunteers, according to the plaintiffs.
— Maxine Bernstein