Farm Home Staff Returned to Work, Lead DHS Investigator Resigns

dsc_3362Employees at The Children’s Farm Home began returning to work recently, following controversy over whether Senate Bill 1515 was to blame for the suspension of 18 employees. Farm Home staff held a meeting with State Senator Sarah Gelser and representatives from the Department of Human Services (DHS) to voice concerns about the affect the staff absences were having on their ability to properly do their job and maintain healthy relationships with their clients. The director of DHS’ investigative unit has since resigned and suspensions are continuously being lifted.

According to Senator Gelser, SB 1515 “Ensuring Children Are Safe,” did not call for employees to be put on unpaid leave. She stated, “That is not something that is required or even suggested by the law.”

How This Started
In fact, the unpaid staff suspensions at the Farm Home began with an action from the Office of Adult Abuse Prevention and Investigations (OAAPI), an investigative entity within DHS.

The unit conducted an investigation of The Farm Home’s employees and practices following a suicide on the campus after which Trillium Services, the company that operates the Farm Home, and their CEO Kim Scott received a statement of violation of Oregon Administrative Rules and their licensing rules for Child Caring Agencies.

This happened on Aug. 25, and OAAPI cited that Trillium’s violations included, but were not limited to: standard procedures for room checks, risk assessments for children with suicidal tendencies, and proper action plans following a suicide.

DHS then placed six conditions on Trillium’s license to operate a Child Caring Facility, which were mandatory actions to be carried out immediately. Among the conditions was, “Any staff, employee, manager or contractor of Trillium who is the subject of a pending or substantiated abuse or neglect investigation by DHS must be removed from all contact with youth at all times, and must not supervise or manage staff who are responsible for direct contact with youth…”

Changes to Trillium’s license are continuously being made, and at press time, there are a total of four amendments to their agreement. Trillium CEO Kim Scott says, “The interpretation and implementation of [SB 1515] departmentally has been very disruptive, not just to Trillium Family Services, but to the entire sector.”

Gene Evans, the DHS Public Affairs Director, says DHS’ actions do not feel like an overreaction. “…Protection of children and youth always comes first, and safety planning is essential to that. As with Trillium, conditions can be amended as things change.”

The Effect of OAAPI Overreach
In short, regardless of the credibility of the initial complaint from an at-risk teen, a staffer subject to any investigation would be suspended, and OAAPI sent a list of employees under investigation to Trillium, who were then placed on unpaid leave. The impacts at the Farm Home were striking.

With all the other campus facilities absorbing clients from the hall that was closed after the suicide, the campus was now also shorthanded because of the suspensions, so remaining caregivers were then asked to work longer hours if they could. Trusting relationships between clients and caregivers were severely impacted as staffers were sent home without explanation to anyone.

Adding to the uncertainty, unlike other healthcare workers, caregivers at the Farm Home are not unionized, and with their administrative leaves unpaid, staffers resorted to starting a closed Facebook group that gathered people for daycare during job interviews and even to buy groceries for those who couldn’t afford any. Many staff members were searching for jobs with better security.

What SB 1515 Actually Says
SB 1515 does not require the suspension of employees, though it does outline some licensing investigation procedures for DHS. For instance, “If the Department of Human Services becomes aware that any suspected or founded abuses, deficiencies, violations or failures to comply with the full compliance requirements… the department shall immediately investigate and take appropriate action, with primary concern given to the health, safety and welfare of the children for whom the child-caring agency is responsible.”

There is no language requiring unpaid leaves and it is important to remember that at-risk teens may make retaliatory complaints against caregivers. What the bill does do is provide the department discretion.

OAAPI Director Resigns, Next Steps
The Director of OAAPI, Marie Cervantes, resigned on Sept. 7. The interim Director of OAAPI is now John S. Thompson, while Cervantes will work as an Adult Protective Service Manager in the Aging and People with Disabilities (ADP) program. According to Senator Gelser, Richardson began addressing the issues from the meeting the next day by screening out suspended employees on a case-by-case basis, returning them back to work.

DHS issued Scott another amendment to Trillium’s licensing agreement on Sept. 8. The removal of the condition that employees needed to be removed from contact with the youth pending investigation was among the changes.

Senator Gelser is hoping to work on addressing some of the other concerns brought up at the meeting with Trillium, such as the ambiguity around filing incident reports and inefficient communication in a large entity like DHS. “That is a really important issue that needs to be looked at so they can be focused on doing their work,” she says.

Scott is hoping that in the future DHS will take a more nuanced approach to problems such as this one. “I think that what we’re trying to do in collaboration with the State is to look at a process moving forward that is more sensitive to the needs of the traumatized populations that we work with.”

For the moment, Trillium has provided a plan acceptable to DHS for how they will determine if a caregiver should continue working should a complaint from a client be received.

By Gina Pieracci