Oregon state senator honored for pressing for fixes to Oregon’s foster care system

The Corvallis Democrat was recognized for her work reforming Oregon’s foster care system

By: - December 6, 2021 11:24 am
Sen. Sara Gelser Blouin

Sen. Sara Gelser Blouin just won an award for her work to protect Oregon foster children. (Photo by Antonio Becerra)

State Sen. Sara Gelser Blouin has been working on child welfare issues for a long time.

In 2007, after being elected to the Oregon House for Corvallis, the Democrat sponsored Karly’s Law, which strengthened protections for abused children. 

In 2015, she was elected to the state Senate, where she spearheaded legislation that makes investigations into child fatalities transparent and added protections for children with disabilities. She backed bills ensuring children with disabilities and those who have chronic health conditions are covered by insurance and played a key role in shifting school discipline policies away from automatic expulsion to a focus on prevention. She pushed forward reforms as chair of the Senate Committee on Human Services. 

“I’ve been focused on child welfare for a long time, but certainly kicked it up a notch when I came over to the Senate in 2015 and had the gavel for human services,” Gelser Blouin told the Capital Chronicle.

On Friday, she was recognized for that work by the law school at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, which gave her the Carl Levin Award for Effective Oversight. The award, named after Michigan’s longest serving U.S. senator, honors lawmakers who work in a bipartisan, fact-based way. 

“Senator Gelser Blouin’s investigative oversight work of the Oregon child welfare system represents everything the Carl Levin Award seeks to honor – a commitment to uncovering the facts, full bipartisan participation, integrity, fearless leadership and dedication to the public good,” according to an email to the Capital Chronicle from Linda Gusitus, senior adviser at the center.

The state Human Services Department sent dozens of  foster children to poorly regulated facilities out of state starting in 2017. Inspection reports, lawsuits and legislative hearings showed that some were abused, drugged and restrained. Gelser Blouin, who added Blouin to her last name this summer after marrying Oregon State University biology professor Michael Blouin, brought their stories to the state Senate. She invited children who had been abused to testify, holding the Human Services Department responsible. 

“Something here has gone very, very wrong,” Gelser Blouin said during an April 11, 2019 informational hearing of the Senate Committee on Human Services.

Fairborz Pakseresht, Oregon’s director of Human Services, agreed.

“I don’t think I disagree with anything you said,” Pakseresht said. “We do make mistakes, and when we make mistakes it’s on me.” 

In 2020, Oregon officials brought home all out-of-state foster children. Gelser Blouin considers that a major achievement.

“We have made major transformations on the way that congregate care is regulated,” Gelser Blouin said. “We became the first state to develop a definition of abuse for children in care.” 

She was nominated for the award by Oregon Secretary of State Shemia Fagan.

“Senator Gelser Blouin protected Oregon’s most vulnerable kids. Period,” Fagan said in a statement. “Her courage and strength to stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves deserves recognition.”

In the same statement, Blouin Gelser thanked Fagan and her legislative colleagues.

“Investigating challenges within our child welfare system and uncovering abuse and exploitation across multiple states from for-profit residential programs has become (a) life passion for me,” Gelser Blouin said. “Our work in Oregon has driven policy change across several states and helped shut down some dangerous facilities. Yet, there is so much work left to do and so many kids’ voices to lift up.”

She told the Capital Chronicle that she appreciated the award.

“What I appreciate is that it focuses on the role of oversight, which is always very difficult,” she said.

She is currently leading a legislative work group on implementing the national Family First Prevention Services Act in Oregon. The law was enacted to focus child welfare systems across the country on keeping children safely with their families instead of placing them in a facility or with another family.

Besides that, she’s considering running for the 4th Congressional District to succeed Rep. Peter DeFazio. He announced last week he will retire next year.

 

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Lynne Terry
Lynne Terry

Lynne Terry has more than 30 years of journalism experience, including a recent stint as editor of The Lund Report, a highly regarded health news site. She reported on health and food safety in her 18 years at The Oregonian, was a senior producer at Oregon Public Broadcasting and Paris correspondent for National Public Radio for nine years. She has won state, regional and national awards, including a National Headliner Award for a long-term care facility story and a top award from the National Association of Health Care Journalists for an investigation into government failures to protect the public from repeated salmonella outbreaks. She loves to cook and entertain, speaks French and is learning Portuguese.

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