SALEM — Gov. Kate Brown is taking another whack at reforming Oregon’s beleaguered foster care system.
Brown announced Thursday that she was creating a special board to oversee child welfare issues and ensure that reforms are enacted.
The move came two days after advocates filed a class-action lawsuit against the state over its treatment of the thousands of children in foster care.
In recent weeks, journalists revealed that:
• About 80 foster children were sent out of state to refurbished jails.
• The state failed to report deaths of children in foster care.
• A pair of caseworkers in Polk County had sex near a child while they were charged with watching the child.
• A 9-year-old Oregon girl was flown to Montana to be housed in a psychiatric residential treatment facility where she was injected with Benadryl to control her behavior. There were no records of an Oregon caseworker checking in on her.
When asked what specifically prompted her move, Brown answered in generalities.
“I would just say I’ve been growing increasingly concerned,” she said.
Brown said her office and the public have not been getting accurate information about the child welfare system, but said she doesn’t believe she was intentionally misled. She said she still has faith in Fariborz Pakseresht, the director of the state Department of Human Services.
Speaking at a press conference, Brown said the new board, created through executive order, has been in the works for a couple of weeks.
“The changes in the child welfare system are going to take a lot of time, energy and resources,” Brown said. “I’m committed to making those cultural changes that need to happen.”
The board will serve as a conduit between Brown and the Department of Human Services.
It will work to increase the number of places where foster children can live while they’re in the state’s care, bolstering the foster care system to include therapeutic foster care and services for children with special needs. The board, which will meet with the department officials every two weeks, also will help with transparency in dealing with public records and communications.
Brown will lead the group, comprised of Multnomah County Circuit Judge Nan Waller; Ajit Jetmalani, a psychiatry professor at Oregon Health & Science University; David Sanders, of Casey Family Programs; Leslie Sutton, with the Oregon Council on Developmental Disabilities; Oregon Health Authority Director Pat Allen; Matt Garrett, a former Oregon Department of Transportation director; and two more to be named soon.
Brown will also form a crisis management team to implement the board’s recommendations and place a member of her staff in the Department of Human Services office.
“I see the crisis team as a SWAT team and the oversight board as being, frankly, the group that holds the SWAT team and the agency leadership’s feet to the fire,” Brown said.
Brown said placing one of her executive staff in the department is an unusual but warranted step.
“I want someone from my executive team to be on the ground in the agency to ensure that the evaluations and recommendations of the crisis management team are being implemented as efficiently as possible,” Brown said.
Brown has also given the Department of Human Services the ability to amend or suspend agency policies, including those affecting contracting and hiring, to more quickly address issues as they arise.
Oregon has about 7,500 children in the foster care system — a number Pakseresht has said is too high.
The agency wants to keep children with their families as much as possible while providing support services.
That’s in part because the Department of Human Services believes the family is often a better fit for a child than foster care, but also because the state has struggled to manage care for all those children.
The state has not been able to place all those children in homes, so it has put some up in hotels with adult monitors and shipped others out of state to companies with poor reputations.
State Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, a vocal critic of the foster care system, applauded Brown’s move, saying it shows the governor is serious about fixing the problem rather than firing a bunch of Department of Human Services officials to transfer the blame.
“It’s not messaging, it’s not about communication, it’s not about politics,” Gelser said. “It’s about a little girl in Montana that never should have been shot up with those drugs and needed to come home.”
Not everyone shared Gelser’s optimism. Hours after Brown’s press conference, state House Republicans released a statement essentially saying the governor’s latest move is one of talk, not substance.
“Another board won’t do,” said Greg Stiles, a spokesman for the House Republican Caucus, in a prepared statement. “The role of the chief executive is to provide oversight and leadership, not to neglect festering issues until they become injurious.”
There’s already a governor-appointed commission on foster care, which began meeting in June 2017.
Brown said that commission was more focused on policy, and another group, the governor’s Children’s Cabinet, is targeted at implementing a system of early childhood care and education.
Evidence of the kind of problems the new board will face can be found in Polk County, where scandal has plagued the Dallas field office.
In December, two monitors were put on leave for allegedly having sex in a hotel bed while a foster child slept next to them.
In February, the agency put Stacey Daeschner, the Dallas office’s program manager, on leave while it investigates her “conduct in the workplace.”
On Tuesday, a class-action lawsuit was filed, alleging the state is failing to protect the children in its foster care system.
Brown specifically said the legal challenge was not a consideration in the decision.
“I think we all in this state bear the responsibility for what is happening in our foster care system,” Brown said. “These are all of our children.”
Pakseresht has admitted the system is flawed.
After a successful stint at the Oregon Youth Authority, he was handpicked by Brown to turn the Department of Human Services around.
Pakseresht has said his goal is to provide sustainable changes that will stay in place long after he departs the agency. Those fixes can’t happen overnight, he argues.
In a statement, he said the agency was making progress.
“We have a clear picture of what must be done,” Pakseresht said, “We have defined the strategies to correct the problems, we have been building the foundation for the corrective work and we are making progress.”