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Oregon DHS report admits missteps in foster kid care, but lawmaker says that’s not enough 

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Oregon DHS report admits missteps in foster kid care, but lawmaker says that’s not enough 

Apr 02, 2024 | 8:10 pm ET
By Ben Botkin
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Oregon DHS report admits missteps in foster kid care, but lawmaker says that’s not enough 
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The Oregon Department of Human Services released a report that detailed some missteps in a child welfare contract on Tuesday. The Oregon Department of Human Services is in Salem. (Michael Romanos/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

The Oregon Department of Human Services, under pressure by lawmakers and advocates over its care of  foster children in hotels, released a report on Tuesday acknowledging past mistakes.

Many were related to its contract with Dynamic Life, a Keizer-based nonprofit run by a former pastor, which started at $500,000 but quickly expanded to $12 million for support services for foster kids while they were in hotels.

The contractor hired staff to look after vulnerable children but didn’t run background checks on them and didn’t give them proper training. Public records revealed that  staff mistreated children by improperly restraining them and withholding medication, among other things, and yet DHS paid Dynamic Life more than 100 times what it typically pays foster parents to care for children in short-term rentals, according to an investigation by OPB last year.

DHS terminated its contracts with Dynamic Life in December.

The agency’s report, which was conducted by the DHS Office of Resilience and Emergency Management and released Tuesday, details some of its mistakes in hiring Dynamic Life. It includes promises by DHS management to ensure better oversight of their contracts in the future.

But that response falls woefully short of what is needed, said state Sen. Sara Gelser Blouin, D-Corvallis and chair of the Senate Interim Committee on Human Services. She told the Capital Chronicle the report is  superficial and doesn’t reflect the seriousness of the problems suffered by the children and the agency’s failure to ensure they were protected.

“Although the report concludes with an acknowledgement of ‘the extreme stress and harm’ to ODHS staff, not once does the agency accept accountability for or even acknowledge the severe harm imposed on children,” Gelser Blouin said. “This includes dozens and dozens of inappropriate physical restraints, consistent and severe medication errors, violation of child rights and reported shaming over sexual orientation and gender identity. These harms were a direct result of ODHS’ failure to regulate and monitor these unlicensed organizations despite paying them millions of taxpayer dollars and entrusting them with the lives and bodies of some of the most victimized and traumatized kids in Oregon.”

Although the report concludes with an acknowledgement of ‘the extreme stress and harm’ to ODHS staff, not once does the agency accept accountability for or even acknowledge the severe harm imposed on children

– Sen. Sara Gelser Blouin, D-Corvallis

Thousands of Oregon children are in the state’s foster care system. In February, the state had about 4,600 children in foster care. Those in hotels represent a small portion but they are among the most vulnerable with behavioral health and other challenges. Twenty-six foster children and youth were housed in hotels for at least one night in October 2023, according to a state report. From January to August 2023, 92 children and young adults were in temporary lodging, ranging in age from 6 to 19 years old. 

Oregon DHS report admits missteps in foster kid care, but lawmaker says that’s not enough 
Sen.Sara Gelser Blouin, D-Corvallis and chair of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, at the Oregon Legislature on Feb. 12, 2024. (Jordan Gale/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

Normally, agencies that care for children in the welfare system have to be licensed and follow regulations on the use of restraints, staff training, background checks and more. But DHS officials used unlicensed providers, like Dynamic Life, to care for children while they were in temporary lodging. 

Officials have argued, and the report acknowledged, that there are too few providers to house and shelter children with complex physical and mental needs, including some who are in the juvenile justice system. 

“All of these factors lead to extreme stress and harm to child welfare workers,” the report said. “It also results in workers seeking out providers like Dynamic Life because there are few providers willing to serve children in temporary lodging.”

The report says the agency’s contract with Dynamic Life grew too quickly. It said DHS staff handling the contracts were not properly trained and that background checks were not consistently conducted on all Dynamic Life employees until late last year. 

The report said some Dynamic Life staff wrongly believed they didn’t need a background check because they had received a different one through a separate DHS program. Other staff didn’t have one because Dynamic Life managers didn’t realize they needed one.

The review also found gaps in communication and the approval of the contract’s finances. 

Fariborz Pakseresht, DHS director, said he has directed agency leaders to develop a plan for needed changes.

“We take seriously any concerns brought forward about those who serve children in our care and are committed to continuous improvement,” Pakseresht said in a statement.

Need for more accountability

Gelser Blouin criticized the agency for telling journalists and lawmakers that the interviews with children in Dynamic Life’s care showed the kids were fine.

That was not the case, she said.

“Public records show serious concerns were reported by kids and their caregivers at these interviews,” Gelser Blouin said. “These concerns included Dynamic Life staff use of marijuana while on the job, inappropriate physical contact with kids and the discomfort of a female identifying youth when placed in the care of male staff.”

We take seriously any concerns brought forward about those who serve children in our care and are committed to continuous improvement

– Fariborz Pakseresht, director of Oregon Department of Human Services

In this year’s legislative session, Gelser Blouin tried to pass a bill that would have mandated that contractors supervising foster kids in temporary lodging be licensed. But Pakseresht and the agency’s child welfare director, Aprille Flint-Gerner, objected to that requirement, saying it wouldn’t be able to find a provider to care for kids in hotels. So that provision was removed from Senate Bill 1521 before it passed, Gelser Blouin said.

That means that children under the supervision of unlicensed agencies while they’re in temporary lodging don’t have the same protections as other children in the child welfare system, which include a bill of rights for foster children, notifications to attorneys and other protections, Gelser Blouin said. 

Requirements need to be put into law rather than be cited in contracts, she said. Contracts involve less oversight and harm has to occur before action is taken.

The agency doesn’t have the training, capacity or knowledge to protect kids by putting similar requirements into the contracts,” Gelser Blouin said. “If ODHS says they will just put licensing requirements into the contract, why not just license them rather than creating a fragmented, duplicative system of oversight that has fewer teeth and less structure?”

Immediate changes

The agency will centralize its management of contracts for temporary lodging for children rather than having local offices handle them. That was the case with Dynamic Life. Its contract started at a local agency office and grew to include multiple districts.

The agency also plans to have consistent requirements for temporary lodging providers that includes safety intervention and training. Officials said it will step up training for staff who administer the contracts and make sure contracts have background checks spelled out.

The agency also is auditing its child welfare contracting processes while the Oregon Department of Justice reviews Dynamic Life’s contracts. 

Agency officials also said DHS has opened a personnel investigation but did not provide any details about who is being investigated or for what.