September 13, 2017 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

The situation at Oregon’s Department of Human Services isn’t improving.  This fine article details the latest string of child abuse overseen by the department and the civil suits that are resulting in huge payouts from taxpayers to abused kids (Oregon Live, 9/3/17).

The latest is a $7 million settlement with two children who were taken from their mother, apparently without any analysis of whether their father would be an appropriate placement for them.  They were placed with foster parents, John and Danielle Yates, who proceeded to starve them over a period of 2 ½ years to a point at which they will never recover.  The pair were one and two years old when they were placed in foster care.  They were finally removed when they were four and five.  They weighed the same then – 27 and 30 pounds - as they had when they were originally placed with the Yateses.

Amazingly, although the children were plainly malnourished, and various doctors made note of the fact, no one reported the matter for almost three years.  Finally, physicians at Randall Children’s Hospital did, not only the obvious, but what was required by law.  As readers of this blog well know, there are many “mandated reporters” who are required to report anything that might suggest child abuse or neglect to child welfare authorities or the police. Doctors are among them. But despite the children’s emaciation, no one picked up the telephone.

Given all that, it’s not just the DHS that’s paying money to the children to settle their civil suits.

A lawyer who was supposed to look out for the brother and sister's interests also agreed to a $300,000 settlement to avoid being included in the lawsuit.

The foster parents agreed to pay $100,000 – the proceeds from selling their home, according to court records. John Yates and Danielle Yates also each had to pay the children a fine of $4,250…

They still have an active lawsuit that alleges negligence by a pediatrician and his medical center and a network of federally funded health centers. The children were seen at the health centers by nutritionists with the Women, Infants and Children program more than a dozen times during the period when they were starved and abused.

The children survived their ordeal, but, when children of those ages don’t receive proper nutrition, they’re at risk for lifelong mental, cognitive, emotional and psychological disabilities.

Although the long-term consequences are difficult to predict, the children's lawyer wrote that they will likely continue to experience delayed physical and mental growth and even regression because the abuse occurred during critical periods of development. Medical professionals expect the children could suffer emotional, behavioral and physical problems, including musculoskeletal disorders that would require "extensive orthopedic intervention and treatment," according to court records. Both have required extensive counseling to address food hoarding, trust issues and other emotional scars from years of mistreatment.  

Astonishing as the monetary payouts in the case are, they’re nowhere close to the largest in Oregon’s history.

The settlement is among Oregon's largest for wrongdoing by a state agency but short of the record, a $15 million settlement by the Department of Human Services in 2015. That lawsuit was filed on behalf of nine infants and toddlers abused by a Salem foster father.

That’s hardly the extent of recent DHS malfeasance that’s costing Oregonians, though.

Only one foster child has received a higher payment from the state: Stephanie Kuntupis. She was 2 when her Gresham foster father shook her so violently that he blinded her in one eye and caused irreversible brain damage. The state agreed to pay her $3.75 million.

In the past year, the state human services department also agreed to pay $750,000 and the city of Seaside's insurance company $250,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by the estate of a 2-year-old killed three years ago. The Oregonian/OregonLive documented that October settlement using court files in other matters regarding the toddler and his older brother, who survived.

The lawsuit alleged that child welfare workers and a Seaside police officer failed to adequately intervene in the years, months and weeks before 2-year-old Coltin Salsbury died on March 6, 2014, after his mother's boyfriend threw him headfirst into a toilet in a Portland motel room.

Meanwhile, top officials at DHS are either being fired or abandoning ship.

At least one top human services official originally named in the lawsuit, then-Department of Human Services director Clyde Saiki, is on his way out after less than two years at the helm.

Saiki took over in 2015, after the director during the time the siblings were starved and abused, Erinn Kelley Siel, was allowed to resign. At the time, the agency was dealing with the scandal over abuse and neglect at a Portland foster care provider. Kelley-Siel and other top officials continued to send children to the foster agency even though they were aware it had serious problems. 

Saiki, who will retire this month, struggled to improve the agency's child welfare division. He fired the top two child welfare administrators, child welfare director Lois Day and chief operating officer Jerry Waybrant, hours after the lawsuit was filed in early 2016…

But Day's replacement, Lena Alhusseini, resigned in May after less than a year on the job and acknowledged she had been unable to achieve crucial improvements in child welfare. Alhusseini's resignation followed the revelation by The Oregonian/OregonLive of a state report that state social workers left children in unsafe homes nearly half the time.

One employee, however, is still on the job.

One key state employee has held onto her job, however:  the manager of the caseworkers who failed to keep the preschoolers safe, Shirley Vollmuller. Vollmuller was named along with Saiki in the children's lawsuit, but she still works for the state. Vollmuller, who as a manager is not represented by a union, also supervised caseworkers responsible for a preschool-age brother and sister who were physically abused and starved by their foster parents in Clackamas County from 2002 to 2004. The state settled lawsuits filed on behalf of those children for a total of $3.5 million. 

I suspect Oregon’s problems stem from the same causes at work in other states – too few caseworkers, too many cases.  Add to that mandated reporting that results in a constant torrent of reports of suspected abuse and neglect, 80% of which are entirely meritless.  That’s according to the U.S. Administration for Children and Families that keeps data, acquired from the states, on abuse and neglect of children.  If there were fewer reports that needn’t be made, but that take agency employees’ time, there could be more caseworkers to see to individual children who are at risk.

Plus of course, the federal government provides cash incentives to states to take children from their parents and place them in foster care.  Needless to say, that largess encourages the taking of kids, many of whom don’t need to be.  Those cases too unnecessarily take time away from children who need agency attention.

I have to wonder if the money received from Washington is enough to balance out the millions paid out in civil suits.  Somehow I doubt it.  But whatever the case, I think Oregon’s DHS should be made to figure out whether there’s a positive or a negative cash flow for the agency.  If money is the only language those people speak, perhaps they need to come to grips with the financial reality of what they’re doing.

 

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