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NPO publishes blog articles to inform and to stimulate conversation about issues of importance to NPO's mission.  All blog articles express the opinions of the authors as individuals and do not necessarily reflect the views of National Parents Organization, its Board of Directors, or its executives.  

January 14, 2016 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

Children’s welfare agencies across the country continue to fail the children they exist to help, parents and the taxpayers who support them.

In California, one state legislator called for the child welfare system to be “scrapped” and to start again from square one. They did just that in Arizona following scandal after scandal of children in foster care being injured and sometimes killed. In the midst of starting over, state regulators discovered a whopping 6,000 cases of alleged abuse or neglect that caseworkers had simply ignored. In Texas, a federal judge recently issued an order to appoint a special master to make wholesale changes to the state’s child welfare system. That too followed years of incompetence, criminal cover-ups, a revolving door at the top of the agency and an outside audit that found personnel turnover rates over 25% per year, caseloads at twice the recommended average and policy books so huge and self-contradictory that caseworkers had no way to know what agency policy consisted of. In New York, the child welfare agency’s preferred method of dealing with complaints is to simply refuse to provide information, often in violation of state law. In Richmond, Virginia, files on children at risk have been missing for years.

Now it’s Oregon’s turn (The Oregonian, 1/9/16).

It seems the state senate began looking into the Department of Human Services that oversees the state’s child welfare system. That meant investigating an agency that’s used to acting in private, far from the prying eyes of the public, the press or legislators. Predictably, the findings weren’t pretty. For example, emails from back in 2009 revealed some astonishing things.

Back in February 2009, the head of Oregon's child welfare programs emailed her boss with worries about Portland foster care provider Give Us This Day.

"At a site visit last week, numerous concerns arose (on top of the fact that they aren't licensed) — the most serious of which is that every single staff person has a criminal record," Erinn Kelley-Siel wrote to the Department of Human Services' director, Bruce Goldberg.

Yes, the group home didn’t have a license and every person on the staff had a criminal record. Every. Single. One.

What could possibly be worse? For one thing, the fact that the situation at Give Us This Day was perfectly acceptable to DHS. The Department knew all about the provider, but did nothing for seven years to rectify the problems. Why did it take action then? After all, if providing foster care without a license and employing exclusively criminals didn’t get anyone’s attention, what did? Money.

The department eventually stopped placing children at Give Us This Day — but not until almost seven years later, after allegations emerged that the provider had misspent nearly $2 million in state funding.

Who’d have guessed that a staff of criminals would have “misspent” the funds they were given? Not DHS, apparently.

Oh, and about that license that Give Us This Day didn’t have. Apparently it’s not important.

Give Us This Day's financial troubles were first reported by Willamette Week in September. Later that month, a former Give Us This Day employee sat before the Senate's human services committee and said the provider failed to provide food and clean bedding, rewrote reports, tolerated mold and rodents, and let workers use improper force. 

Conditions there were well known to child welfare authorities, but nothing was done. As it turns out, that’s no surprise. Why? Because abuse and neglect by foster care providers is acceptable under Oregon’s laws and the rules that supposedly regulate them.

Now, providers can keep their license if they're "substantially" in compliance, even if regulators have repeatedly confirmed abuse and neglect.

You read that right. “Repeatedly confirmed abuse and neglect” are A-OK with Oregon state regulators. A provider won’t lose its license to “care for” kids just because of that. Of course, as Give Us This Day proved, a license isn’t even necessary to be a provider, so what does it matter that repeated abuse and neglect doesn’t result in license revocation or suspension?

But, just so we’re clear, if you’re a parent, “repeatedly confirmed abuse and neglect” of your child are decidedly not OK. That’s the type of behavior that loses you your child in a heartbeat. But if you’re a foster care provider, nothing of the kind will happen. No, in that case, it’s business as usual; the money will continue to flow. Be careful to account for your expenditures and how you treat the children in your care won’t receive much scrutiny.

Of course the problems don’t just come from Give Us This Day. No, other providers have behaved almost as badly over the years, with pretty much the same non-response from DHS. In Washington County, caseworkers ignored complaints of abuse of kids for decades (yes, decades), and at Youth Villages, supervision was bad enough that the kids were having sex on the premises.

Another provider, the Scotts Valley School 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.

It goes on and on; scandalously deficient foster care, abused children and the state agency that’s supposed to protect them intentionally turning a blind eye. All of that of course costs the state money in legal fees and huge judgments and settlements won on behalf of those children.

Oregon has paid millions of dollars in settlements involving abuse, in some cases fatal, over the past several years.

All of that got the attention not only of the state senate, but the governor as well. The resulting investigation unearthed the outrages discussed in the linked-to article and many, many more. So why weren’t they known before? Regular readers of this blog know the answer all too well – secrecy. Oregon’s children’s welfare agency conducts its business out of the sight of the press and elected officials. That of course is how things can get so bad. Any governmental agency whose employees know that no one is looking over their shoulder inevitably do less than their best. When that agency is understaffed, underpaid and overworked, secrecy makes a bad situation all the worse.

State Senator Sara Gelser hit the nail on the head.

"All of the right things were being said in public. But behind the curtain, decisions were being made to sacrifice the safety of kids," Gelser said. "That's not a red flag. That's a giant neon sign."

Yes, but no one can see even a giant neon sign if it’s hidden behind that curtain. In Oregon and in every other state, it is.

Gelser vows radical change.

"We need a very significant culture change," said Gelser, D-Corvallis, who's working up bills that would give officials more power to investigate abuse claims and close providers accused of neglect…

One of Gelser's bills would tighten licensing requirements and financial rules, and give regulators the power to suspend a provider's license over abuse claims and other safety violations.

That’s all jolly good, i.e. better than nothing. But as long as Oregon receives federal money for every child taken into foster care and every one adopted out of foster care, the motivation to take children from parents will remain strong. And as long as child welfare workers operate in secret, the same horrors will continue to happen. No one is protected by secrecy laws but incompetent caseworkers and their supervisors. And nothing is kept from public view except the abuse and neglect of children by the very people We The People pay to prevent it.

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#childabuse, #childneglect, #fostercare, #Oregon

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