SALEM — The 80-year-old state library is a hulking, marble box of a building whose tall, narrow windows resemble the slots in an electrical outlet.
One day last summer, it was the unlikely setting for a reckoning over efforts to reform the state's foster care system.
As the mid-July morning wore on, some members of the Governor's Child Foster Care Advisory Commission, who had gathered in a conference room on the ground floor, seemed dispirited. Some complained the group had gathered plenty of information after a year of meetings but had made no progress shaping up the state's daily care for 7,500 children.
"We have discussions, and we pose questions, and then we never revisit, we never come back," said commission member Emily Reiman, the executive director of the Neighborhood Economic Development Corp., according to a recording of the meeting. "The action doesn't happen."
Now, as public scrutiny and criticism of foster care in Oregon intensifies, the state is facing lawsuits, legislative grilling — and yet another board appointed by the governor.
Commissioners on the original foster care panel were in that room last summer due largely to an ambitious freshman legislator who wanted to help foster kids. State Rep. Duane Stark, R-Grants Pass, was sworn in to his first term in January 2015. That fall, a scandal at Give Us This Day, a Portland foster care provider, implicated the state's Department of Human Services. State consultants assessing the agency's work found there weren't enough places for foster kids to live and that the state could better respond to reports of abuse.
"One of the things that's been super discouraging," Stark said in a recent interview, "is that we'll have a different work group, or task force, or reports that get done, and they're turned in, and everybody's like, 'Oh, did you see that?' Then it sits on a shelf and nobody ever does anything with it."
Stark, a pastor and foster parent, wanted to create a place where all those reports could transform into policy. Stark got some of the state's most influential legislators to sign on to his idea. During the 2016 legislative session, they created the Child Foster Care Advisory Commission, stocked with 11 members appointed by the governor. Its members include attorneys, child welfare experts and former foster youth. Their mission: Monitor outcomes for foster kids and advise the governor and legislature on policy and legal issues that could result in better care for kids removed from their parents.
The group's first meeting didn't come until June 2017 — more than a year after Gov. Kate Brown signed the legislation creating it.
By the time of its first meeting, DHS had a new boss. In May 2017, Brown appointed Oregon Youth Authority Director Fariborz Pakseresht to the post, citing his "strong track record of innovation and collaboration in each role he has undertaken."
Pakseresht brought in an experienced and respected state manager to take over the state child welfare office.
Still, the department rarely avoided criticism for continuing controversies. There was a public outcry and a lawsuit over the department's practice of putting kids who had been removed from their homes in hotels and DHS field offices. In January 2018, state auditors found that "chronic management failures" and high caseloads threatened the agency's ability to keep foster kids safe.
By mid-2018, advisory commission members were frustrated. The commission tried to follow the legislature's directive but had not proposed any policy or law changes. Its work had no concrete impact on foster kids in the state.
At that July meeting in the library building, the commissioners elected a new chair and then turned to discussing the future of the commission. Several members cited the lack of action.
"This isn't meant negative towards anything in particular, but we come to these meetings and it's all about presentations," said commissioner Kari Rieck, executive director of Court Appointed Special Advocates – Voices for Children in Benton County, "And we have a few minutes to ask questions and the commission has never had the opportunity to discuss anything that we've heard . . . or have any healthy conversations going forward."
Tim Colahan, the head of the Oregon District Attorneys Association, felt they should explain to legislators why they hadn't been able to meet their expectations. "When I was appointed to this commission, I remember some of the conversations I had with some of the legislators, and they had some extremely ambitious and high expectations of what we were going to accomplish," Colahan told his colleagues. "And I think it's necessary that we explain to them what the challenges have been, and why we haven't been able to get there. And I'm not blaming anybody, I just think we need to do that. What I don't want to do is put together a report that people look at and say, well, it is a nice, 8-by-10 glossy report, that gets shoved on a shelf somewhere and never accomplishes anything."
New board tackles challenges
By the time lawmakers convened this January, the commission still hadn't proposed any changes to a system that experts consider understaffed, overburdened and unable to safely provide for the children.
It's one proposal for legislators this session is provide about $158,000 every year to support the commission's work, including pay for a full-time staffer. The proposal would also add two more commissioners. Leaders say a lack of staff and money hampered the commission.
As its request for staff awaits legislative action, scrutiny of the foster care system has reached a crescendo. News reports revealed that dozens of Oregon children were sent to residential facilities outside the state, with little monitoring by Oregon officials. And in mid-April, 10 foster kids sued the state, saying that Oregon was violating their civil rights.
Brown answered the growing crisis with an announcement on April 18. She was creating yet another board to do oversight of the foster care system. By executive order, Brown formed the new board, which will be made up of top-level state officials as well as a caseworker and nonprofit executives who will meet frequently. They'll meet privately.
Their task is to advise the governor on issues in the system, particularly on out-of-state placements, making sure that the state has more places for foster children to live, and addressing the agency's "operational challenges," like public records, communications, hiring and human resources.
Brown is also creating a crisis management team to act on recommendations from past reports and audits.
And the governor gave the Department of Human Services new power. The agency can suspend or change state administrative rules if they hinder "rapid and effective responses" to the system's issues, according to her executive order.
As the new board gets up and running, Brown's office maintained that the older commission has been useful. "The current leadership of the commission has done significant work in some areas that are promising, such as creating a forum for foster youth to come together and drive change," a spokeswoman for Brown said in an email in response to questions from the Oregon Capital Bureau.
And it's expected to survive.
"I still have hopes for this commission," Stark said. "Until we get them some staff to actually work on those things, it's kind of turned into more of an advisory sort of thing, where people come together and they talk about it, and that's it. And that's not the goal of it. And they know that that's not the goal of it, so hopefully we can get them some staff and make it what it's supposed to be."
Wound that won't heal
Why did the commission get no staff in the first place? At least one group, Youth Rights and Justice, raised a red flag about the lack of funding back in 2016, according to legislative records.
Stark said in an interview that he met with the governor to pitch his idea for a foster care commission. Stark and the governor had different notions about staffing and Stark said he failed to clarify the matter. "What I had in mind and what she meant by providing staff was different," Stark said.
The Grants Pass lawmaker said he didn't know that the commission didn't have an employee until recently. The governor's office provided some administrative help and help from a policy adviser.
The commission's vice chair, Elliott Hinkle, said in an interview that the commission's leaders wants to focus on listening to foster parents, kids and teens and incorporating their views into recommendations. "We wanted it to be a space where we could hear the voice of folks who are experiencing the system, take that information, and give it to the legislature, the DHS director," Hinkle said. "And say, 'Here's what people say they're experiencing, and here's our recommendations about what to do with that.'"
"What do our policies look like on the ground for the people that have to live them? That's where I would like to see the commission go," said state Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis. "I don't know that that necessarily means that they have to be proposing policies or legislation or bills. Leadership happens in a lot of different ways."
Hinkle hopes that the lawsuit, new oversight board and commission can nudge DHS to make positive changes.
"For me, it's more just about the hope that all that pressure creates change," Hinkle said. "I don't really have a clear opinion yet about what's the right way to go about it."
"I do appreciate the governor trying to take action, but I do think it is time we start taking a systematic look," Stark said. "Is it time to restructure the entire system based off of what some other states are doing, or do we keep on trying to put Band-Aids on a wound that we can't seem to heal?"
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