Oregon foster child's murder in Mexico prompts new laws

Date: 2009-05-29

Susan Goldsmith and Michelle Cole

SALEM -- Children in Oregon foster care sent by the state to live with relatives in other countries will get closer monitoring under two bills that cleared final legislative hurdles Friday.

The Senate unanimously endorsed House Bill 3471 and the House passed Senate Bill 10, both drafted in response to a series in The Oregonian exposing the murder of a 4-year-old Oregon foster child in Mexico in 2005.

Girl's story prompted laws

The new laws aimed at protecting Oregon foster children who are placed with relatives overseas resulted from The Oregonian series in March that detailed the tragic story of 4-year-old Adrianna Romero Cram. "Adrianna's journey shows how child welfare agencies in two countries failed a little girl," said Rep. Andy Olson, R-Albany.

Read the stories and see a video about Adrianna's case

As the Legislature finished its work on the new laws, the state Department of Human Services said Friday that it is preparing to send 11 children from Oregon foster care to live with families in Mexico.

"Oregon must do everything within its power to protect those among us who can't protect themselves. Lives of innocent children are at stake," Senate President Peter Courtney said in a statement after the Senate vote. "We can no longer count on authorities in other countries to take care of Oregon's children."

A spokeswoman for Gov. Ted Kulongoski said he intends to sign both bills into law.

One measure directs Oregon child welfare officials to comply with the Hague Convention on the Protection of Children.

The international agreement, which took effect last year, is intended to protect children who are being adopted from abuse or exploitation. Much of the focus of the treaty has to do with foreign children being adopted by families in the United States.

But for Oregon officials, the Hague agreement is important to better protect children in foster care who are sent to live with relatives overseas.

One child welfare expert cautioned that adhering to the agreement wouldn't change all that much for Oregon youngsters sent to other countries.

"It is not clear anything in the Hague will ensure Mexico will do a better home study," said Elizabeth Bartholet, a professor at Harvard Law School who specializes in child welfare and adoption.

The second bill directs Oregon child welfare authorities to establish "minimum requirements" for the placement and supervision of a child sent overseas, including home visits with the child, the prospective adoptive parents and other people who may know about the child's well-being.

It also would require more thorough home studies for prospective kinship placements abroad.

Beth Englander, the newly hired adoptions manager for the state Department of Human Services, said the newspaper's two-day series on Adrianna Romero Cram's murder prompted "a sense of urgency here."

"The processes we are putting in place are to help prevent another case like Adrianna's," she said. "Adrianna's death won't be in vain."

Adrianna was born in Hillsboro and taken into foster care when she was an infant after allegations of neglect. At 3, the girl was sent to live with paternal relatives she had never met in Omealca, Mexico, in July 2004.

While still in Oregon's legal custody, Adrianna was abused for months and murdered in June 2005. Her aunt and uncle were convicted of homicide.

Child welfare workers in Oregon relied on phone calls with the girl's abusers and sporadic updates from Mexican authorities to find out how Adrianna was doing.

"Adrianna's journey shows how child welfare agencies in two countries failed a little girl," Rep. Andy Olson, R-Albany, said prior to the House vote.

After The Oregonian started to investigate the case, Oregon child welfare officials announced a 60-day moratorium on international adoptions from foster care until more safeguards were in place.

At the time, five children were scheduled to go to Mexico to live with relatives.

Englander said the moratorium has been lifted and 11 children are on the list to go to Mexico.

But Englander said it likely would be at least a month before a child is sent.

Oregon officials will check with the State Department first to make sure there are no safety concerns about a specific area in the country, she said. Officials would also need to ensure that home studies are completed and the new agreements are in place.

Englander said that along with the Hague protections, Oregon child welfare officials will make sure that teachers and neighbors in any country where a child is sent will have a toll-free number to reach Oregon caseworkers if they suspect abuse.

"This gives us more of a framework to ensure we will hear about it and be able to bring a child back before there is serious harm to that child," she said.

-- Susan Goldsmith;
susangoldsmith@ news.oregonian.com

-- Michelle Cole; michellecole@news.oregonian.com


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