The Oregon Department of Human Services has agreed not to house foster children in hotels or its offices unless it is an emergency, according to a settlement reached between the agency and lawyers representing foster children.
The settlement was agreed to Nov. 17 but was announced Tuesday in a joint statement from DHS and Youth, Rights & Justice, a nonprofit advocacy group for Oregon foster children.
The agreement allows lawyers to pursue other legal claims related to DHS housing of foster children. But the agency and its top officials were allowed to forgo an admission of liability.
In September, lawyers for Oregon foster children filed a class action lawsuit alleging DHS broke the law by failing to find appropriate housing for children. In the lawsuit, attorneys described the practice of housing kids in hotels, offices, hospitals — and a juvenile jail, in one extreme case — as "rendering foster children functionally homeless."
The settlement stipulates DHS will not place children in jails without charge, or in hospitals without a medical reason. DHS agreed not to house children in its offices unless there are no safe hotels nearby. Agency staff are also to take children in state custody staying at hotels or its offices to school or day care.
It's unclear how the settlement will change current practices, if at all. It is already policy that foster kids are housed in state offices or hotels as a last resort. DHS spokesman Gene Evans declined to comment when asked how the settlement would change agency procedures. Evans declined to answer questions about how many foster children are in "nonplacement" housing, living arrangements the lawsuit focused on.
Staff with Youth, Rights & Justice declined to comment. Richard Vangelisti, a lawyer whom Youth, Rights & Justice listed as a spokesman for the case, also declined to comment.
One national expert has low expectations for the agreement.
"The settlement is meaningless," said Richard Wexler, who leads the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform. "I truly despair for the future of vulnerable children in Oregon."
He said it's likely little will change until Oregon takes steps to place fewer kids in foster care. It does so at a rate 35 percent higher than the national average, Wexler said.
More than 11,200 Oregon kids spent at least a day in foster care last year, according to DHS data. Most are removed from their homes for neglect.
DHS has faced heightened scrutiny for more than a year over its management of foster care programs.
Gov. Kate Brown has replaced the agency's director. A new official was hired from New York to take over foster care management. An audit was completed, and leadership vowed to find solutions.
Still, agency reports indicate that abuse at Oregon foster homes is on the rise, surpassing the nationwide rate. And fewer people are signing up to be foster parents. That compounds housing issues facing DHS.
The agency's child welfare division has a two-year budget of $943 million and employs 2,600 people.