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Child Advocacy Group Asks To Include All Oregon Foster Children In Class Action Suit

<p>The Oregon Department of Human Services in Salem. The Oregon Law Center is suing DHS over its "temporary emergency lodging" program.</p>

Bradley W. Parks

The Oregon Department of Human Services in Salem. The Oregon Law Center is suing DHS over its "temporary emergency lodging" program.

The child advocacy group suing Oregon over its troubled foster care system took steps Monday to broaden the reach of its lawsuit, asking the courts for permission to expand the pool of plaintiffs from 10 children to about 8,000. 

In a Monday court filing, national nonprofit A Better Childhood asked a judge to allow its  lawsuit filed in April with Disability Rights Oregon to be a class action that would include all of Oregon’s foster children. 

In order for a judge to grant the motion, the advocacy groups must prove the problems plaguing the state’s Department of Human Services are systemic, and not limited to any one child.

“One of the things you have to do is say that the problems that the children experience are common to the system,” said Marcia Lowry, executive director of A Better Childhood. “That’s what we’re trying to do with this motion.”

To that end, attorneys asked two child welfare experts to dive into hundreds of case records pertaining to the 10 plaintiffs and deliver a report analyzing recurring trends. 

One significant theme? The agency routinely allowed reports of abuse and neglect to pile up before intervening. 

According to the nearly 250-page report included in Monday’s court filings, the state’s Department of Human Services had received calls about each of the plaintiffs multiple times on its hotline. 

But these calls rarely resulted in intervention, the analysis said, even in instances when the calls numbered in the dozens. In the extreme case of a child referred to by the pseudonym “Bernard,” nearly 50 reports came in. The state found all but five unsubstantiated, according to the filing. 

In another case of two young brothers, referred to in the suit as Noah and Wyatt, more than 20 reports came in, including allegations that the mother was regularly withholding Wyatt’s heart medication, that she kept him locked in a room all day, and that she’d posted a Facebook status, when he was about seven months old, saying he was dead.  

The agency was unable to substantiate almost any of the reports, the analysis said. The only report that was deemed “founded” resulted in the brothers entering foster care.

“These are kids who have repeatedly been reported to the state, time after time,” said Lowry. “And the state doesn’t act until, finally, the situation gets so severe that the kids have to be taken into care.” 

The analysis found the problems continue once the children enter the foster care system. Children are routinely moved from home to home and placed with foster families “hopelessly ill-prepared and under-resourced to care for them,” the report reads.  

As of this August, Wyatt had experienced 16 placements and his brother Noah had eight. Several of these placements lasted less than 24 hours.

The reviewer, who cited over four decades of experience in the child welfare system, wrote that she “cannot recall ever having seen this degree of instability in the placement experiences of two such young children.” 

Lowry said she feels confident a judge will see the system's structural deficiencies illustrated by the cases of the 10 plaintiffs and grant their request for a class that encompasses all the children in state care.

“My organization has had classes certified in cases like this, repeatedly,” she said. Lowry previously told OPB the advocacy group had filed comparable lawsuits around 20 times. 

The Department of Human Services declined to comment, citing its policy of not discussing pending litigation. 

When the groups first filed the lawsuit, the agency said it shared the groups' vision of a foster system safe for all children in state care.

“We take the care of our foster care children seriously and work with urgency and diligence to achieve this goal.”

Copyright 2019 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Rebecca Ellis is a reporter with Oregon Public Broadcasting. Before joining OPB, she was a Kroc Fellow at NPR, filing stories for the National Desk in Washington D.C. and reporting from Salt Lake City.