ROSEBURG, Ore. — A move to improve the care of foster children relegated to living in hotels has resulted in 25 percent more children removed from their families being housed in institutions such as former juvenile jails, The Oregonian/OregonLive has found .
The children sent to cinderblock facilities are often the most traumatized and difficult to care for. Most are teens but the state is looking at expanding institutional programs for children as young as 6.
Oregon child welfare leaders signed a court settlement a year ago promising to stop housing vulnerable foster children in hotels, state offices and juvenile detention centers instead of with families.
State caseworkers had increasingly relied on those makeshift methods as Oregon faced a shortage of foster homes.
Child welfare officials say they've begun phasing out the use of hotel rooms and, on any given day in December, three foster children were spending the night in hotels, compared to 15 in February 2018.
But at the same time, the state has placed dramatically more young people in institutional settings. Since July 2018, the state has had around 400 foster children assigned to live in such settings, state figures show. In September 2016, when two foster children and their advocates sued the state over its use of hotels, the number was close to 300.
Critics question whether former jails are the right place for foster children. And for many, such placements mean moving far from their home communities, switching to unfamiliar and sometimes segregated foster-child-only schools and losing the chance to live in the care of a parent figure instead of a rotation of shift workers.
When news broke of children staying in hotels in 2016, state officials attributed the phenomenon to a shortage of foster parents.
But Oregon child welfare director Marilyn Jones, who was hired in 2017, now says recruiting more foster families is not the solution and increased institutional care is necessary.
"We don't have foster families that can meet the high trauma that these children have," Jones told The Oregonian/OregonLive. "They can be suicidal and homicidal. They can have self-harm or have harmed others."
The Department of Human Services didn't respond by Thursday to a request for the minimum age of foster children housed in institutional settings.
In Douglas County, Juvenile Department director Aric Fromdahl says his staffers have done what they can to turn one of the two "pods" in their detention center — a grey cinderblock building designed as a youth jail with an enclosed exercise yard — into a welcoming space.
"It's not the softest building, but we do our best," Fromdahl said.
For a 15-year-old girl from Multnomah County assigned to the facility last summer, the program in Roseburg felt both jail-like and remote.
"She feels extremely isolated from her family. They are at least three hours away," the girl's court-appointed attorney, Lauren Freeman, said during a court hearing in Portland in August. "She feels, in essence, incarcerated . I had the same feeling when I was there."
After talking with the girl and hearing from lawyers for her mother, the Sauk-Suiattle Indian Tribe in Washington and the Oregon Department of Human Services, Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Katherine Tennyson ultimately ruled the facility was an appropriate place for the girl to remain at that time.
Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, who has been a vocal advocate for improving Oregon's foster care system, said she doesn't want any foster child to get the message they are being punished or are unworthy of living in a family. Gelser said she hasn't visited the county juvenile detention centers where the state is sending children in foster care. "But if it feels like a jail, I just worry about who we're telling these kids that they are . The bottom line is we need to be developing the right places for kids."