Mounting controversy over foster kids prompts Oregon governor to step in

Gov. Kate Brown is taking another whack at reforming Oregon’s beleaguered foster care system.

Brown announced Thursday, April 18, that she was creating a special board to oversee child welfare issues and ensure that reforms are enacted.

The move came two days after advocates filed a class action lawsuit against the state over its treatment of the thousands of children in foster care.

In recent weeks, journalists revealed that:

• About 80 foster children were sent out of state to refurbished jails.

• The state failed to report deaths of children in foster care.

• A pair of caseworkers in Polk County had sex near a child while they were charged with watching the child. 

• A 9-year-old Oregon girl was flown to Montana to be housed in a psychiatric residential treatment facility where she was injected with Benadryl to control her behavior, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported last week. There were no records of an Oregon caseworker checking in on her.

When asked what specifically prompted this move, Brown answered in generalities. 

“I would just say I’ve been growing increasingly concerned,” she said.

Brown said her office and the public have not been getting accurate information about the child welfare system but said she doesn’t believe she was intentionally misled. She said she still has faith in Fariborz Pakseresht, director of the Department of Human Services.

Speaking at Thursday press conference, Brown said the new board, created through executive order, has been in the works for a couple of weeks.

“The changes in the child welfare system are going to take a lot of time, energy and resources,” Brown said. “I’m committed to making those cultural changes that need to happen.”

The board will serve as a conduit between Brown and DHS.

It will work to increase the number of places where foster kids can live while they’re in the state’s care, bolstering the foster care system to include therapeutic foster care and services for children with special needs. The board, which will meet with DHS officials every two weeks, also will help with transparency in dealing with public records and communications. 

Brown will lead the group, comprised of Multnomah County Circuit Judge Nan Waller; Ajit Jetmalani, a psychiatry professor at Oregon Health Sciences University; David Sanders of Casey Family Programs; Leslie Sutton with the Oregon Council on Developmental Disabilities; Oregon Health Authority Director Pat Allen; former Oregon Department of Transportation director Matt Garrett and two more to be named soon.

Brown will also form a crisis management team to implement the board’s recommendations and place a member of her staff in the DHS office. 

“I see the crisis team as a SWAT team and the oversight board as being, frankly, the group that holds the SWAT team and the agency leadership’s feet to the fire,” Brown said.

Brown said placing one of her executive staff in DHS is an unusual but warranted step. 

“I want someone from my executive team to be on the ground in the agency to ensure that the evaluations and recommendations of the crisis management team are being implemented as efficiently as possible,” Brown said.

Brown has also given DHS the ability to amend or suspend agency policies, including those affecting contracting and hiring, to more quickly address issues as they arise.

Oregon has about 7,500 kids in the foster care system — a number Pakseresht has said is too high.

The agency wants to keep kids with their families as much as possible while providing support services. 

That’s in part because DHS believes the family is often a better fit for a child than foster care, but also because the state has struggled to manage care for all those children.

The state has not been able to place all those kids in homes, so it has put some up in hotels with adult monitors and shipped others out of state to companies with poor reputations.

Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, a vocal critic of the foster care system, applauded Brown’s move, saying it shows the governor is serious about fixing the problem rather than firing a bunch of DHS officials to transfer the blame. 

“It’s not messaging, it’s not about communication, it’s not about politics,” Gelser said. “It’s about a little girl in Montana that never should have been shot up with those drugs and needed to come home.”

Not everyone shared Gelser’s optimism. Hours after Brown’s press conference, the House Republicans released a statement essentially saying the governor’s latest move is one of talk, not substance. 

“Another board won’t do,” said Greg Stiles, a spokesman for the House Republican Caucus, in a prepared statement. “The role of the chief executive is to provide oversight and leadership, not to neglect festering issues until they become injurious.”

There’s already a governor-appointed commission on foster care, which began meeting in June 2017.

Brown said that commission was more focused on policy, and another group, the governor’s Children’s Cabinet, is targeted at implementing a system of early childhood care and education.

Evidence of the kind of problems the new board will face can be found in Polk County, where scandal has plagued the Dallas field office.

In December, two monitors were put on leave for allegedly having sex in a hotel bed while a foster kid slept next to them. 

In February the agency put Stacey Daeschner, the Dallas office’s program manager, on leave while it investigates her “conduct in the workplace.”

On Tuesday, April 16, a class-action lawsuit was filed, alleging the state is failing to protect the kids in its foster care system.

Brown specifically said the legal challenge was not a consideration in the decision.

“I think we all in this state bear the responsibility for what is happening in our foster care system,” Brown said. “These are all of our children.”

Pakseresht has admitted the system is flawed. 

After a successful stint at the Oregon Youth Authority, he was handpicked by Brown to turn DHS around. 

Pakseresht has said his goal is to provide long-term, sustainable changes that will stay in place long after he departs from the agency. Those fixes can’t happen overnight, he argues. 

In a statement, he said the agency was making progress.

“We have a clear picture of what must be done,” Pakseresht said, “We have defined the strategies to correct the problems, we have been building the foundation for the corrective work and we are making progress.”

The state’s foster care system has been a perennial problem for the governor, who took office in February 2015 after the resignation of former Gov. John Kitzhaber.

About seven months into her new job, Willamette Week investigated a Portland foster care agency, Give Us This Day, which contracted with the state to provide homes for some of the most troubled kids in foster care.

The publication reported that Give Us This Day failed to pay employees on time or file tax returns. Former employees reported that the foster homes the agency ran were in a state of disrepair and often unsafe, and that city and state licensing officials had raised concerns about those issues for years.

In a subsequent story, the paper found that top leadership at the agency knew about problems at Give Us This Day for more than a year and failed to act. 

Gov. Brown then appointed Clyde Saiki, a career state employee, to lead the agency in November 2015.

“When it comes to ensuring the safety of children in the state’s care, we must be uncompromising,” Brown said at the time.

Brown commissioned an outside report to dig into child safety issues at the agency, and in 2016, consultants found DHS Child Welfare needed a culture change and other “foundational” shifts. 

In January 2018, state auditors, after a year studying the foster care system, reinforced those outside findings and said DHS still hadn’t made sufficient strides to ensure children were safe, pointing to a litany of systemic issues, from a lack of experienced caseworkers and high caseloads to poor management.

Days after the audit was released, State Rep. Knute Buehler (R-Bend), who was running against Brown’s in last year’s gubernatorial race, said he wanted the legislature to carve out $50 million in state funds for a special “rapid improvement team” to implement auditors’ two-dozen recommendations.

That never happened, but Gelser said real change is now possible.

She met with Brown met Wednesday to go over the executive order. Gelser said she believes these changes can bring about the immediate changes that will make the system safer as the culture change of the agency continues. 

“There’s a long-term vision that we need to get to, but in the short-term, that long-term vision can’t come at the cost of kids in the system today,” Gelser said. “There are real kids with real problems right now. They can’t want for a massive transformation of the system.”

Reporter Aubrey Wieber: [email protected] or 503-575-1251. Claire Withycombe: [email protected] or 971-304-4148. Aubrey and Claire work as part of the Oregon Capital Bureau, a collaboration of EO Media Group, Pamplin Media Group, and Salem Reporter.

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