According to sources at Corvallis’ Children’s Farm Home, this last month brought substantial disruptions in care for residents pursuant to investigations into a youth’s suicide at the facility. According to one staffer, 18 caregivers had been put on leave without pay due to open investigations, thus far with no substantiated findings of wrongdoing.
The Farm Home provides psychiatric services for teens and children, both inpatient and outpatient.
Trillium Family Services operates the facility, and it turns out that they and their staff may have been innocent victims of some well-intentioned legislation that went into effect this July 1, known as SB 1515. According to Clyde Saiki, Director of the Department of Human Services (DHS), it wasn’t until things started going into practice that the negative repercussions of the bill were realized.
To voice their concerns about the immediate effects that SB 1515 was having on their ability to do their job, Trillium CEO Kim Scott, along with numerous staff members held a meeting with Oregon officials, including: Saiki, State Senator Sara Gelser, and DHS Deputy Director Reginald C. Richardson.
According to one Farm Home staffer at the meeting, the amount of people put on leave was equivalent to missing one fully staffed building on campus. Since the building where the suicide took place was closed, clients were relocated to other buildings, stretching both those building’s capacity and that of the increasingly stressed Skills Trainers who had opted to work longer hours to cover for absent staff.
A number of caregivers DHS required to be placed on leave had no involvement with the teen that committed suicide. However, though the new law went into effect July 1, it was only after the suicide in mid August that DHS required Trillium to make the suspensions. In addition, staffers became concerned they could be suspended even if an allegation were leveled by an unstable client with a grudge towards a worker.
According to the same staffer at the meeting, some of those who had allegations made against them were given no warning, with no information on what the allegation was, who made it, or how long they would be on leave for. Many would show up to work without knowing if they would still have a job by the end of the day.
Another staffer at the meeting, a Skills Trainer (which is a caregiver position), summed up the situation as rendering them “incapacitated to serve the youth,” and said that the situation can easily perpetuate a client’s negative behavior and mental health.
Impacts on All
Staff were spread thin, putting them in dangerous situations given the nature of their work. The Trillium community relies on each other, and on the methods of treatment for their clients that have proven successful. When speaking on SB 1515’s impact, a skills trainer said that they “don’t know what the definition of neglect is,” and that it is “not letting us use the approaches that we know work.”
The heightened requirements for reporting left staff members unsure as to how to proceed in routine situations. A Skills Trainer Supervisor explained that they were having fifteen minute conversations over whether or not to report that a client had picked a wound, and that they had to cancel a community basketball game for fear of a client twisting an ankle, as this could have been grounds for calling the child caring agency’s safety measures into question. It’s instances like these that could have placed them on a pending investigation list, which could have put them out of work for an indefinite period of time.
Unpaid leaves like these do not just affect the staff’s livelihoods; staff members have strong connections with their clients that are built over time on trust. When that trust is broken, such as by the departure of a staff member, especially with no indication or reasoning, building the trust back can be extremely difficult and can damage their relationship in the long term.
Fearing for their own ability to earn a livelihood, several staffers reported to The Advocate that they are seeking work in other fields. Also, a number of Farm Home staff formed a closed Facebook group to rally food and other contributions for caregivers put on unpaid leave.
Unlike many other health care professionals, these workers are not affiliated with a union.
What Was Supposed to Happen
Senate Bill 1515 is a measure meant to strengthen “the Department of Human Services’ authority to license, regulate, inspect, investigate, and take immediate enforcement action against entities that risk a child’s health, safety or welfare.” The bill was pushed by Senator Sara Gelser, after it was revealed last year that DHS failed to fully investigate serious allegations of neglect and sexual abuse at a Portland foster care provider.
Specifications in the bill include increasing the flow of information between care providers and state agencies, require the maintenance of a minimum staff to patient ratio, and protect those who report abuse from liabilities.
But there has been another repercussion in the form of staffers with allegations made against them, regardless of veracity of the claim, being put on unpaid administrative leave until the matter is fully investigated.
It is notable, though he may not have understood the repercussions at the time, that Scott supported the bill while it was being considered, stating: “It is clear to me the bill creates a much safer and more accountable provider system for children’s services in Oregon.”
“All providers should be held to this level of accountability in the interest of the safety and welfare of children, as well as the effectiveness of the system of care that serves these youth,” he continued.
What Now for Staff, Clients
After the meeting last Thursday, Senator Gelser wrote on Facebook, “Nothing in SB 1515 requires (or even speaks about) the challenges that are cropping up, but the lived experience of these providers is real.” She has committed to making changes to the bill, along with DHS Director Saiki and Deputy Director Richardson.
Saiki commented on the fact that the repercussions were unintentional and Trillium Family Services CEO Kim Scott was in agreement.
As far as a timeline goes, Thursday night Saiki stated they, “will not have to wait until the next legislative session”, and that DHS would get working on the bill as soon as possible.
At press time, there are reports that a number of staffers put on leave have now returned, though DHS did not respond to requests for comment this latest development, Trillium CEO Scott’s statement was, “It is Trillium’s policy never to speak publicly about employment or HR-related issues, or comment on open investigations of any sort.”
By Regina Pieracci and Anthony Vitale