Today, a class-action lawsuit was filed against the Oregon Department of Human Services, and much of the complaint drawn on experiences like those of Naomi B., a 16 year-old from Corvallis. The suit comes as Oregon lawmakers continue deliberating the fates of an increasing number of children farmed out of state by DHS.
Filed in federal court by the national advocacy group A Better Childhood, statewide group Disability Rights Oregon and the firm of Davis Wright Tremaine, the lawsuit alleges Oregon, “continues to be a constitutionally inadequate parent, revictimizing already vulnerable and innocent children.”
The 77 page complaint also reads, ” “The system is so overwhelmed, under resourced and ineffective that older children and children with even relatively mild behavior problems are often not placed by DHS in family homes with necessary supports and services,” and continues, alleging. “Instead, DHS places these children in inappropriate institutions, ships them out of state where they are placed in costly and questionable for-profit congregate programs that do not address their needs, or largely abandons them so they wind up in homeless shelters or on the streets.”
Filed on behalf of 10 plaintiffs, all current Oregon foster children, ranging from age 1 to 17, the suit is titled Wyatt B. v. Brown, and includes all Oregon foster children in the custody of DHS. Oregon Governor Kate Brown, Oregon Department of Human Services Director Fariborz Pakseresht, Child Welfare Director Marilyn Jones, and DHS are all named as defendants.
The complaint points to a system, “so dysfunctional that Oregon cannot accurately track how bad its services are.” The suit also alleges Oregon has ignored recommendations for system improvement for more than a decade.
“There has been an extraordinary abdication of responsibility for the kids in Oregon’s foster care system,” said A Better Childhood Executive Director Marcia Lowry, a litigator in the case. “I don’t think there is anyone in a position of leadership and authority in the government that is really taking responsibility for what’s happening to these kids. I think they’ve been totally abandoned.”
WHAT HAPPENED TO CORVALLIS 16 YEAR OLD, NAOMI
Age 16, Naomi B. is from Corvallis, and she has spent the past five months shuffling between homeless shelters and institutions. Some of these institutions were actually detention facilities simply repurposed for foster care placements.
The suit alleges that Naomi entered foster care in November 2018 after twice ending up at Good Samaritan Hospital’s emergency room threatening suicide. DHS concluded Naomi could not safely stay with her father, but they could not find her placement. So, with the consent of Naomi’s father, she was placed in Jackson Street Youth Shelter, for the first of what would be seven times.
Then, in December, Naomi was sent to Creekside, a former police department headquarters that has been modified to care for foster children. On her first day, Naomi was attacked by another resident. The suit also alleges Naomi would then witness her roommate being placed in a locked cell, where she would then slit her wrists.
After placement at another juvenile detention center and a failed placement at the home of a family friend, Naomi ended up going back to the Jackson Street homeless shelter. The suit alleges that to this point, Naomi had still not received adequate counseling or therapy.
Notably, the complaint asserts Naomi has no history of substance abuse.
But, at the end of January, Naomi was placed at the Youth Inspiration Program (YIP) in Klamath Falls. Dubbed an addiction treatment center, the locked facility is a repurposed juvenile detention facility with concrete floors and walls. According to the complaint, Naomi was not allowed outside the facility. Instead, she was escorted to a 30-by-30 foot concrete outdoor exercise yard, which was enclosed by a 20-foot-tall fence topped by barbed wire.
The suit also alleges Naomi was only permitted one book in her rooms at a time, and all clothes and other personal items were secured in a separate locker room. The suit maintains Naomi’s education suffered. She was only allowed one-and-a-half to two-and-a half hours of online education daily, exhausting the facility’s educational offerings over the course of two months.
She was given just one hour of therapy a week. Conversely, Naomi was required to attend mandatory daily group substance abuse and sex abuse therapy sessions, despite no problem with substance use, or history of sex abuse.
DHS: A HISTORY OF PROBLEMS
The most recent available federal number from 2017 shows 7,972 children in Oregon’s foster care system.
Last Thursday, at a meeting of the Oregon state Senate Human Services Committee, Sen. Sara Sara Gelser (D) learned 85 Oregon foster youth are now placed out of state, a number that has more than doubled since 2017. As described in our prior coverage, many of these children are placed at facilities that so concerned Washington State officials, that they will not use them anymore.
“We need more action than a roundtable discussion,” Gelser said at the meeting. “We need people on the ground checking on each of these children today and getting them home.”
This is not the first time DHS has been the subject of a class-action lawsuit. In 2016, the department was sued in an effort to have them end the practice of placing foster kids in hotel rooms and state offices, which DHS finally agreed to phase out by 2020.