An article this week in The Oregonian described an unexpected appearance by the governor at a State Senate committee hearing considering ways to prevent injuries to children by overhauling Oregon’s foster care system. As the newspaper explained, the hearing, which it described as “tense”, was prompted “by accusations that officials did little as a Portland provider neglected vulnerable children.”
The governor made “a surprise appearance before the Senate’s human services committee, (and) offered details on a promise this month to order an independent review of the Department of Human Services. The assessment… will focus on abuse investigations, licensing practices and how the far-flung agency can better share warning signs, among other topics.”
The hearing was prompted by the discovery that state officials continued to place children with a Portland facility even after they were aware of abuse allegations there, according to the paper. The investigation was set in motion by the state’s justice department but raises broader legal questions. If a child were to die at such a facility both state officials and the people directly responsible for caring for the children could be the subjects of an Oregon wrongful death action. Injuries to children are especially serious, which is why the law needs to allow for swift and tough action in both criminal and civil courts.
A particularly important aspect of the proposed reforms is a bill scheduled to be considered by the legislature next year which “would declare that all abuse and neglect investigation reports would be public records, provided they involve a state-funded program.”
As a Portland lawyer specializing in injuries to children I believe this would be a particularly important change to the law – one that would make it far harder for dangerous or neglectful foster care facilities to evade accountability for their actions. The bill also, according to The Oregonian, revises the legal standard for neglect and abuse and makes it easier to demand accountability. Current law “strictly limits investigations, usually to cases involving serious injury or an ongoing threat,” the paper reports, but the proposed legislation would “set a lower threshold that would include threats, neglect through the denial of food or medicine, financial fraud and lesser injuries that don’t leave a child near death.” This combination of a broader – more sensible – definition of abuse and neglect combined with better public records access will offer Oregon children protections they should have had all along.
The Oregonian: Kate Brown, lawmakers reveal plans for foster care overhaul