Lawmakers hope to end ‘life in a trash bag’ for foster children

The bill would require the state to give foster children luggage when they have to move instead of garbage bags, which is common now

By: - April 24, 2023 5:22 pm
foster children

Volunteers with Project Never Again, an Oregon nonprofit, prepare duffel bags for foster children in August 2022 at its annual event in Hillsboro. A bill in the Legislature would provide foster children with luggage instead of trash sacks to move their belongings. (Courtesy of Project Never Again)

UPDATED at 5:23 p.m. on Tuesday, April 25 with a statement from the Department of Human Services

Oregon foster children often stow their belongings in plastic garbage bags when they are shuffled from one home to the next.

Advocates and lawmakers want Oregon to end the practice, saying the trash bags send a message to vulnerable children that they are garbage. Senate Bill 548 would require the Oregon Department of Human Services to maintain luggage for foster children and submit an annual report to the Legislature with the number of times they use trash bags when moving. 

Children in the state’s system move an average of 5.3 times every 1,000 days, which is worse than the federal standard of 4.1 times. In 2021, 8,620 Oregon children were in the state’s foster care system, according to an Oregon Department of Human Services report. 

Children enter foster care for a variety of reasons, including parental abuse, neglect or other trauma. Some children are in the system until they reach adulthood, while others are reunited with their parents.

“The only person who will be impacted here will be the child who carries their life in a trash bag,” said Seema Steffany, founder and president of Project Never Again, an Oregon nonprofit that provides duffel bags to the state’s foster children. 

The bill, which has passed the Senate with bipartisan support, was discussed Monday in the House Committee on Early Childhood and Human Services.  The bill needs a committee vote and subsequent vote in the House.

Rep. Lily Morgan, R-Grants Pass and one of the measure’s chief sponsors, has worked as a 911 dispatcher and probation and parole officer.

She told the committee she has visited homes when caseworkers removed children and their belongings, usually grabbing a plastic bag – the only thing available. 

“No child should feel that their value is defined by a plastic bag or a trash bag,” Morgan said.

Other chief sponsors are Sen. Janeen Sollman, D-Hillsboro; and Rep. Anna Scharf, R-Dallas.

A spokesperson for the Oregon Department of Human Services, which runs the state’s foster care program, declined to comment on the bill or its practices. The agency hasn’t weighed in on the measure. 

On Tuesday, the department issued a statement:

“It is a rare circumstance – and only when it is out of the department’s control – to transport a child’s belongings in a trash bag,” wrote Jake Sunderland, the department’s press secretary. “The Oregon Department of Human Services, Child Welfare Division is committed to ensuring the dignity of all children and young people who are experiencing foster care. It is a best practice for case workers to be prepared with luggage or duffel bags for a (child’s) belongings when entering foster care.”

He said the child welfare manual calls for case workers to have duffel bags in their cars.

“Local offices across the state also are stocked with luggage and duffel bags and are using hundreds per year,” Sunderland said.  “Community partners have stepped up with generous donations of bags, and (the department) purchases bags when needed.”

During the hearing, Steffany told lawmakers her organization approached the state agency about the issue in 2018 and the agency acknowledged the practice was prevalent. Officials said they wanted to stop it.  However, after five years and “countless failed meetings, lack of communication and cooperation from child welfare,” the agency has not resolved the issue, Steffany said in submitted testimony. 

“To my astonishment, I seem to have literally heard every excuse from child welfare employees and this even includes the leadership team,” she said.

Those excuses – sometimes contradictory – include: The agency doesn’t use trash bags, parents don’t provide luggage during removals and the agency lacks storage space, Steffany said in testimony.

“One of the biggest hurdles is the change in culture and mindset,” Steffany said in an interview with the Capital Chronicle. “It comes from the top down. I can’t really blame caseworkers because they are not the ones who should be going out buying bags.”


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Ben Botkin
Ben Botkin

Ben Botkin covers justice, health and social services issues for the Oregon Capital Chronicle. Ben Botkin has been a reporter since 2003, when he drove from his Midwest locale to Idaho for his first journalism job. He has written extensively about politics and state agencies in Idaho, Nevada and Oregon. Most recently, he covered health care and the Oregon Legislature for The Lund Report. Botkin has won multiple journalism awards for his investigative and enterprise reporting, including on education, state budgets and criminal justice.