By SARAH ZIMMERMAN Associated Press
SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Oregon lawmakers and child welfare officials went head-to-head in a tense over the state's beleaguered foster care system, with a top official accusing lawmakers of "public shaming."
It was a rocky start to the first of a planned series of twice-weekly hearings meant to tackle a crisis in the state's foster care system, which has faced intense scrutiny over the years and recently became the target of a federal lawsuit.
Sen. Sara Gelser, a Democrat from Corvallis who has become a vocal child welfare advocate, called the Tuesday hearing for an update on seven children with intellectual and developmental disabilities who were sent to out-of-state residential facilities.
Gelser pressed officials from the Department of Human Services, which runs the state's foster care system, exactly who approved sending those children out of state, as Oregon had committed to stop sending children and adults with disabilities to these institutions a decade ago.
Gelser then detailed the conditions of the facilities, saying children went months without visits from caseworkers and that kids would be placed in straight jackets or injected with Benadryl to control their behavior.
"I am very sad that I have lost confidence in this agency," she said. "I have wanted to have confidence and trust in the agency but I have lost it."
Oregon's Director of Human Services Fariborz Pakseresht shot back, saying he was deeply committed to helping the state's foster children and that the agency is filled with workers "breaking their back" to ensure kids are safe.
"These should not be public shaming sessions," he said, later adding, "If I'm not the right person to do this job, then it's a pretty simple fix."
In an unusual move, the hearing at one point recessed to bring in Senate President Peter Courtney, who defended Gelser.
"I don't think I've done anything like this before, ever," he said, adding that he instructed Gelser to conduct the hearing because "we gotta make this thing right."
Earlier this month a federal lawsuit was filed against the agency, saying the foster care system has failed to shield children from abuse and they are sometimes forced to stay in refurbished jail cells and homeless shelters. And since 2006, the agency has paid $39 million in legal settlements over allegations of abuse and neglect.
Oregon has over 80 children in out-of-state facilities, and DHS has committed to reassessing its use of those institutions. A 9-year-old girl who made headlines when advocates said she was injected with Benadryl in a Montana facility has been returned to Oregon.
Caseworkers have begun visiting each of the children sent out of state to re-examine their care going forward. Pakseresht said that all the kids visited so far were "safe" and "receiving the services that are appropriate for their development."
But Pakseresht also stressed that high-profile public hearings won't help reform the agency, and that Gelser was "putting him on the spot" to respond to questions he wasn't prepared to answer.
"If you want to help us to improve the system then come walk with us," he said, later adding he doesn't believe the "current process is going to bring this agency to a place where it can create better outcomes for children."
Gelser responded that she's "not concerned" about how the agency feels.
"I am more interested in walking alongside the children who are being hidden, who are far away, who have absolutely no one to speak for them," she said.