State studies abuse, safety of children in foster care

Oregon's rate of abuse is about twice the national average

By Ruth Liao

September 21, 2009 / statesmanjournal.com

For the first time, Oregon is studying how children already in foster care are abused or neglected again.

The call for such an investigation comes after two reports — stemming from cases in Gresham and Beaverton — were completed and released last week.

In 2008, there were 83 children in Oregon family foster care homes who were abused or neglected, said Erinn Kelley-Siel, director of Children, Adults and Families division of Oregon Department of Human Services.

This was less than 1 percent of all the children in the state who were reported abused or neglected, which was 13,965, department spokesman Gene Evans said.

Though the cases in foster care represent a far smaller portion than the overall population, state child-welfare leaders are convening a team of law enforcement, child advocates and others to look how abuse can be prevented.

"Abuse of children in foster care is unacceptable to me and to all Oregonians," Kelley-Siel said.

In Marion County, 15 foster children were reported abused or neglected, out of 1,996 children in foster care.

Salem Police Chief Jerry Moore is on the team, which also includes Don Darland, Oregon Foster Parent Association; Leola McKenzie, Department of Justice Juvenile Courts Programs; Megan Schultz, Lane County CASA director; Pamela Butler, founder of Oregon Foster Youth Connection; and Kevin George and Cyndi Kallstrom, two Oregon DHS foster care program managers.

The two reports were completed by the state's Critical Incident Response Teams, which are convened at the request of the director of DHS when a child within the agency has been seriously injured to killed. One looked at a longtime foster parent convicted of child abuse. A Washington County man was convicted of sexually abusing his adoptive daughter.

The other report examined another case in 2005 where six children — all medically fragile infants and toddlers — were removed from a foster home after spending hours unattended in their cribs in a small storage room.

The team is directed to come up with changes of practice or policy to prevent abuse, review a sampling of foster home certification files for foster parents who have served children for at least five years, and review a random sampling of foster care reports of abuse that were closed, in order to identify whether DHS workers and other authorities properly responded to the cases.

Appointed member Pamela Butler, who grew up within foster care and suffered abuse in homes herself, is glad that this is coming out into the open.

"I think it's something that's been overlooked for years, and not by direct fault," Butler said. "It always got put on the bottom of the list."

Butler, 25, now works in child-welfare policy reform.

Chief Moore said law enforcement officials are among the first responders in suspected abuse or neglect cases from the community or state DHS.

"It would certainly be our goal, and DHS' role, that whatever situation they are put in, is much safer than the one that they're removed from," Moore said.

Although Moore is surprised and alarmed by the number of cases of abused or neglected children in foster care, he said he's known "wonderful" foster parents who still are fulfilling an important role.

"This is not an indictment on all foster parents," he said.

Carl Jones, the president of the National Foster Parent Association, said Oregon's rate of abuse among foster children is about twice the national average, which is about 0.32.

But states collect information about abused and neglected children differently, which doesn't allow a fair comparison, Jones said.

More efforts are needed on the state and national level to recruit foster parents and give them adequate resources, he said.

"One of the most important things we do is protect the foster parents from giving them training and support, so they don't become overwhelmed, especially in the beginning," Jones said.

Longtime Oregon foster parent Don Darland said he hopes the committee can determine whether systemic policies that need to be changed, or whether it is increasing quality of caseworkers or foster parents.

"I'm hoping that we don't lay just a whole bunch of guilt trips on foster parents statewide," Darland said. "They have a tough job — it's not easy to parent someone else's children who has been abused."

Darland said reading the critical incident reports made him feel "almost betrayed."

"Many of us consider us as professional parents and doing this for many years," Darland said. "And when one of our own does something to hurt kids, it's like a betrayal — and it sets you back three or four steps."

rliao@StatesmanJournal.com or (503) 589-6941

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