PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — A federal judge this week appointed an outside expert to help Oregon end its practice of housing kids in foster care in hotels, years after the agency promised it would do so in a legal settlement.
U.S. District Court Judge Michael McShane on Tuesday took the unusual step of appointing Marty Beyer to oversee the state’s Department of Human Services, noting the agency has not figured out how to stop “temporary lodging” on its own, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported.
Oregon has spent more than $25 million housing 462 kids in foster care in hotels since the state promised to largely end the practice as part of a legal settlement in 2018.
In the first six months of this year, 75 kids ranging in age from 6 to 19 years were placed in hotels. Twenty of those kids have lived in a hotel for more than 60 days.
“This is incredibly harmful for these kids,” said Maggie Carlson, an attorney for Youth, Rights & Justice, which was one of the groups that filed a 2016 lawsuit to stop the practice. “They are spending months and months in hotels with a rotating cast of caregivers all the while getting the message they are unwanted and can’t do well with a regular family and they are different and unlovable.
"It really affects their mental health in the long term.”
When the state of Oregon removes a child from their home, child welfare officials are responsible for their care. Placing vulnerable youth in hotels for extended periods of time is widely recognized — even among Department of Human Services officials responsible for kids placed in state care — as an inappropriate placement.
Attorneys and advocates with Youth, Rights & Justice and the Oregon Law Center had asked a judge earlier this year to consider appointing a special master.
Beyer, during a one-year contract with the state, will gather information before making recommendations on how to find better placements for vulnerable children. The judge could then order the state to follow Beyer’s recommendations. Beyer is a child welfare and juvenile justice consultant with a Ph.D. in clinical/community psychology from Yale University, according to her website.
Oregon DHS officials said they struggle to find adequate places to house kids after removing them from families because of a lack of capacity in foster homes and residential treatment centers, the latter of which help treat kids with extensive behavioral health needs.
When the state was questioned about sending foster kids to facilities outside the state, officials initially said kids had such complex needs there was no adequate spot for them in Oregon.
In recent legal filings, advocates said the state was again relying on the same rationale to explain the need for lodging kids in hotels, writing that the agency consistently failed to undertake systemic changes.
For seven years, the state has said there was a lack of suitable placements for kids and it was working diligently to increase capacity, McShane wrote, adding, “this argument has become nothing more than a stale mantra and the Court has lost faith in ODHS’ ability to end this entrenched policy on its own.”
Jake Sunderland, a Department of Human Services spokesperson, said Wednesday in an emailed statement that the department is committed to transforming its child welfare system into one focused on prevention and safety, and that it welcomes working collaboratively with Beyer.
“We look forward to showing Dr. Beyer all of the extensive efforts ODHS (Oregon Department of Human Services) has engaged in to comply with the settlement agreement and hearing her ideas about how to address existing barriers,” Sunderland said.
He also said the department will continue to work to reduce hotel stays for kids by supporting children in their homes and expand options for placement in a facility when children need a high level of care.
Annette Smith, a public defender representing kids placed in foster care, has watched Oregon struggle to find appropriate placements for kids for years. In 2019, she represented a 9-year-old girl who was sent to a facility in Montana where she was drugged and largely abandoned by the state of Oregon. Shortly after that story became public and the child returned to Oregon, other cases of abuse were raised and the facility was shuttered.
What is truly needed in Oregon for kids placed in foster care is in short supply, Smith said.
“(We need) really skilled, well-paid community based resource parents, or to the largest extent possible we keep kids within their family,” Smith said.