Abuse in children's foster care: State officials call for outside review
by Michelle Cole, The Oregonian
September 02, 2009
SALEM -- Child welfare workers discounted or ignored reports of abuse in a Washington County foster home for more than a decade and continued sending children there -- right up until January, when the father was arrested for sexually molesting a girl in his care.
An internal investigation by the Department of Human Services raises disturbing questions not only about what happened in that home but also about the 83 children abused in other state-certified family foster homes last year.
Almost 14,000 Oregon children spent at least one day in state foster care last year and the rate of abuse in foster care is far lower than in the overall population. But child welfare officials say they're disturbed by what they're learning and intend to make sure Oregon fulfills its responsibility to protect kids who have already endured abuse by their parents or others.
The department announced Wednesday that it would convene a team of outside experts to examine whether the state adequately investigates foster parents and the complaints against them. The team is asked to report back within 90 days.
"We want to understand whether there is something different about the way our system responds to reports of abuse by foster parents," said Erinn Kelley-Siel, head of the state's Children, Adults and Families Division.
The outside review follows two recent investigations into abuse in Portland-area foster homes. The state also released reports of those investigations on Wednesday.
Kelley-Siel acknowledged that the reports are "difficult" to read, but said the state's child protection system won't improve unless its problems are identified.
One report chronicles complaints against foster parents Warren and Melody Tripp, certified by the state in 1995 to care for children who have been taken away from their parents because of abuse or neglect. Over the years, the state placed more than 90 children in the couple's Aloha home.
Warren Tripp, 59, pled guilty in July to sodomy and first-degree sexual abuse of a 15-year-old girl who first came to the home as a foster child in 1995. Court records indicate the abuse began in 2006.
But the subsequent investigation suggests troubles started in the home long before. State officials say they found a "pattern of inappropriate physical discipline and intimidation" dating back to 1993.
Child welfare officials received 16 reports of suspected child abuse or neglect over the years; records show seven were "closed at screening" and never investigated.
The allegations include: sexual abuse; a 4-year-old hit in the head with a telephone book; 5- and 6-year-olds left in a high chair in the garage as punishment; a 6-year-old thrown against a wall; a 10-year-old who was choked; food withheld as a form of punishment; children beaten by sticks, called names and forced to wear dog collars.
Caseworkers had either ruled the reports "unfounded" or not worth investigating. In the meantime, the Tripps continued to be certified as foster parents. They often received positive reports from state certifiers with no mention of the numerous abuse allegations.
Warren Tripp was sentenced to 175 months in prison. Melody Tripp was not charged and did not respond to calls from The Oregonian this week.
The second report released Wednesday involves Gail and Marvin Thompson, a Gresham couple certified as foster parents in 1967 to care for infants and toddlers with severe medical or developmental needs. The couple took in hundreds of children over nearly four decades.
This year, however, the state agreed to pay $2 million to settle a lawsuit alleging the Thompsons had abused two twins.
According to the lawsuit, the twins were kept in a darkened room in a crib covered with chicken wire.
The couple denied any wrongdoing and was never charged with a crime.
"We didn't mistreat these children," Marvin Thompson said Wednesday. "We never lost a kid. We adopted two of our special needs kids."
The state's internal investigation examined child welfare's interactions with the couple from 1995 to 2005, when allegations involving the twins surfaced and authorities pulled six children out of the home.
The report finds that caseworkers did not visit every room in the home, as required today. It also says foster care certifiers did not assess whether the aging couple could keep up with high-needs children.
Thompson said doctors, therapists and caseworkers frequently visited their home and that he and his wife had ongoing training. "All the pediatricians we dealt with recommended our home because we knew how to handle these kids."
In the past 12 months, authorities received about 1,000 reports of suspected abuse or neglect in foster care, which includes single family homes and larger residential care settings. Roughly 350 received a full-scale investigation.
Don Darland, president of the Oregon Foster Parent Association, says accusations of abuse or neglect against foster parents aren't unusual and sometimes come from an angry parent who has had a child removed.
"Sometimes that scares people out of foster-parenting," said Darland, who has taken children into his home since 1991 and teaches classes that help foster and adoptive parents learn to defend themselves against unfounded allegations.
Still, Darland says, "there's no excuse for sexually or physically abusing or neglecting children. We're just as angry about abuse in foster homes as anybody. I know foster parents who have turned in other foster parents. We definitely police our own ranks."
Oregon has recorded a higher rate of confirmed abuse in foster care than the national average since at least 2003.
On Wednesday, a new lawsuit was filed against Human Services on behalf of a 19-year-old woman who says state child welfare officials placed her in the home of her grandfather, a convicted rapist. He went on to molest the girl from age 5 to 9, according to the suit.
State officials would not comment on that lawsuit. Kelley-Siel released a statement that said: "Protecting children is one of the most important jobs we do, and the abuse of children in foster care is not acceptable to me or to Oregonians."
--Michelle Cole; email@example.com