State attorneys seek dismissal of Oregon foster care lawsuit

State attorneys are seeking to dismiss a sweeping federal lawsuit targeting Oregon's troubled foster care system.

Posted: Jul 26, 2019 12:17 PM
Updated: Jul 26, 2019 2:17 PM

By SARAH ZIMMERMAN Associated Press

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — State attorneys representing Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and the Department of Human Services filed a motion to dismiss a federal lawsuit targeting Oregon's troubled foster care system, arguing in part that the state is already taking significant action to address child welfare.

The motion, filed Thursday, responds to a lawsuit filed in April arguing that the state violated foster children's federal and constitutional rights by not providing them proper care. The suit said DHS failed to protect the 7,500 foster children in its custody from harm and cited numerous examples, including a case involving a nine-year-old girl who was sent to an out-of-state facility where she was drugged and physically restrained by staff.

In its motion to dismiss, the state argues the federal court system cannot compel changes to Oregon's foster care system and that improving child welfare is "a task that must be left to Oregon's juvenile courts and state government." Brown and other top leaders at DHS have also released comprehensive plans to address challenges identified in the lawsuit making litigation unnecessary, attorneys argued.

Brown signed an executive order in April convening a Child Welfare Oversight Board to introduce and implement changes to the foster care system regarding out-of-state placements, a shortage of foster homes within Oregon, and complaints from child welfare workers that they are overworked and understaffed. DHS announced this week that it is prepared to hire over 300 additional child welfare workers, a move driven by the governor's executive order.

But the national advocacy group A Better Childhood, which filed the original lawsuit, said it's too early to tell if state's course of action can adequately address the scope of the problem.

"You can't dismiss a lawsuit just because the state promises to be better," said Marcia Lowry, executive director of the New-York based nonprofit. "The state has good intentions, but for ten years they've been making recommendations on how to fix the problem without any real results."

A Better Childhood, which has filed similar lawsuits in other states, has two weeks to respond to the state's motion to dismiss. A judge would decide whether or not to move forward with the case.

Jake Sunderland, a spokesperson for DHS, said the department "cannot comment on this litigation at this time."

Federal judges have issued mixed rulings on suits targeting state foster care systems. A Florida court dismissed a similar case in 2003, while a Texas appeals court this month upheld a court ruling compelling the state to make significant changes to its child welfare system.

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