SALEM — Gov. Kate Brown told an advisory committee Friday that she expected Oregon’s child welfare system to improve its services and help foster children thrive.

Brown met Dec. 18 for the first time with her new advisory committee that was appointed last month to oversee a review and improvements to the state’s child welfare system.

“I see your role as really critical as we move forward, in terms of making sure we have a foster care system that enables our children in the system not only to survive but to thrive,” Brown told committee members. “I want you to hear it from me. In no way do I see this level of services as being acceptable.”

The governor is responding to the Department of Human Services’ failure to take action against licensed children’s services providers with known problems. News coverage highlighted the issues this fall, starting with a story in Willamette Week that revealed child neglect and misuse of public funds by the Portland foster care program Give Us This Day. Although then-DHS Director Erinn Kelley-Siel and other top officials knew of the problems, including detailed findings from an Oregon Department of Justice investigation, DHS continued to send children to Give Us This Day.

“I really see your role as holding people’s feet to the fire,” Brown told committee members.

Stellar work

The state is close to awarding a contract to a consultant who will review several aspects of the state’s child welfare and foster care programs, and recommendations from the consultant and advisory committee could result in legislation as soon as the short 2016 legislative session in February.

Several members of the advisory committee said the state has cut money for these programs during previous recessions and never restored funding. Brown said she would work with the Legislature to increase funding for child welfare, but offered few details on how she would accomplish that.

State Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, said a lack of resources cannot be an excuse when the state fails to take action to protect children, such as the foster children at Give Us This Day. “The problems that bring us around the table, there is no excuse, there is no policy, there is nothing in the state of Oregon that justifies what happened to these kids,” Gelser said. “We can’t allow ourselves to fall into that. We need to remember why we’re at the table.”

Gelser said the problem was that DHS managers and the agency’s previous director knew about problems at Give Us This Day yet continued to send children there, “which suggests there is a culture that accepts bad places.”

Interim DHS Director Clyde Saiki said the agency’s director has to make clear he or she is ultimately accountable.

“I think that part of the culture change that has to happen within the department is leadership has to say we are accountable, and if bad things happen, that’s on us,” said Saiki, whom Brown appointed as interim director after Kelley-Siel resigned and it was revealed another interim director had also failed to respond to the problems at Give Us This Day.

Brown complimented Saiki on his handling of the agency. “I think his work has been stellar,” Brown said. “I hope you’re feeling that on the ground, as well.”

Wrestle for public records

Members of the advisory committee, who include legislators and representatives of service provider and interested community groups, discussed some of the areas in which DHS could improve. One of their concerns was transparency. Lené Garrett, executive director of Court Appointed Special Advocates in Marion County, said even though advocates have court orders granting them access to information on foster children’s cases, they still often struggle to get the information they need from DHS. The group advocates for the interests of abused and neglected children in the court system. Gelser also said it seems like she has had to “wrestle for every public record” she requested from DHS.

The committee also welcomed two newly appointed members on Friday, both from the Oregon Foster Youth Connection program for current and former foster kids: Katie Robertson and Nicole Stapp. Kids in foster care are often worried about issues that might not come up in media coverage or lawmakers’ discussions, such as that if they report abuse or other problems, they could be moved to a different home and separated from a sibling or friend, Robertson and Stapp said.

The committee is expected to meet again in January.

Hillary Borrud is a reporter with the Pamplin Media Group/EO Media Group Capital Bureau in Salem.

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