Foster Care Lawsuit: Judge to Decide What the Public Can Know

Lawyers for Oregon’s Department of Human Services have asked a federal judge to seal all court records with certain information about 10 foster children who are suing the state This would mean the public may never learn how the state’s beleaguered foster care system treated the plaintiffs, who range in age from 18 months to 17 years.

The Contention is About

Lawyers for the children had to sign a stipulated order sealing much of the case  on August 15. They signed so the state would start releasing their client’s files to them. But, they disagree with the extent of the secrecy required. At this point, both sides have submitted their arguments to the court in writing.

In a letter filed last Wednesday, Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum and private lawyers hired by the state argued,  “Even if plaintiffs assert they have a right to disclose anonymized information about themselves in public filings, they do not have the right to do so on behalf of family members and other participants in (Department of Human Services) services, which is a likely result of publicly disclosing information about minors in protective custody.”

Attorneys for the children, had already agreed that any information that may identify the children, their families or foster parents should stay protected. But, they also argue that sealing any and all information derived from the state’s case files, “would effectively block (their) stories from public view and enable (the state) to conduct a largely secret trial on a matter of significant public import.”.

“The countervailing issue is the public’s right to know how a major government system, the Oregon Department of Human Services, is operating, and how this public system’s actions and inactions affect the lives of the system’s wards,” the plaintiffs’ attorney wrote.

Here’s What the Lawsuit is About

 

Two child advocacy group filed the suit on behalf of the children in April: A Better Childhood and Disability Rights Oregon. They are asking the court to mandate and possibly oversee long overdue improvements in the state’s foster care system.

For instance, they seek to have children evaluated within 30 days of being taken into state custody, place limits on caseloads for caseworkers, and  have better supervised foster placements.

The 77 page complaint 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.”

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 this Corvallis 16 Year Old

Age 16, Naomi B., from Corvallis, spent 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 a 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.

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: History of Problems

The most recent available federal number from 2017 shows 7,972 children in Oregon’s foster care system.

Earlier this year, at a meeting of the Oregon state Senate Human Services Committee, Corvallis Sen. 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 were placed at facilities that so concerned Washington State officials, that they had stopped using them.

“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.

By Anthony Thompson