Ending practice of bunking Oregon foster children in hotels will require widespread reforms

Lawmakers heard recommendations from a court-appointed expert on how to address the practice 

By: - January 16, 2024 5:45 am

The Oregon Department of Human Services oversees the foster care system for children in the state. (Michael Romanos/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

If Oregon’s child welfare system ends the state’s practice of putting foster children in temporary hotel rooms, the state will need to make widespread, systemic reforms that guide how children are cared for, housed and helped.

The state would need homes that care for one or two children and more services to help foster families that care for children who have experienced trauma.

That’s the big-picture takeaway for Oregon lawmakers, who received a report and heard recommendations from a court-appointed expert in a hearing last week. The wide-ranging recommendations stem from a 2016 federal lawsuit child advocates filed against the Oregon Department of Human Services over its reliance on hotels to temporarily house foster children when they can’t find another place to put them, such as traditional foster parent homes or youth residential facilities.

The case settled in 2018 with the state agreeing to reduce the number of foster children in hotels but the court later found the state was not in compliance. Last year, the court appointed Marty Beyer, a child welfare expert and Oregon psychologist, to recommend fixes. The judge could order the state to follow all or some of them.

In November, while Beyer was studying the system, the state released a report that said that 26 foster children and youth were housed in hotels for at least one night in October 2023. From January to August 2023, 92 children and young adults were in temporary lodging, ranging in age from 6 to 19 years old. The group represents less than 2% of the state’s children in the foster care system.

But each placement represents a failure to provide stability for vulnerable children. Instead of having known foster parents, the children are cared for by rotating shifts of two adults – either agency employees or contracted workers. The children sometimes land there after foster homes or other settings have failed them.

The hotels, costing the state an average of $2,561 for the lodging, staffing and meals, are temporary. But stays can last weeks or longer if the child needs specialized behavioral health or other services, the report said. In one instance, a 12 year old in 2023 spent a month waiting for a placement in a mental health residential facility, the report said. 

In another instance, a 17-year-old Native girl spent two months in temporary lodging waiting for a slot in an adult foster group home for people with developmental disabilities. Adopted as a toddler, she was diagnosed with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and reentered foster care when she was almost 16. In a two-year period, she had 13 placements, including psychiatric hospitalizations and residential programs unable to manage her inclination to harm herself, the report said.

To address the root causes of the challenge, families, parents, schools and communities need a range of tools so that children are in stable environments and less likely to be shuffled from one foster family to another, Beyer told the Senate Interim Committee on Human Services. 

When children move frequently, that creates a cycle that is reflected in their behavior that reflects “their sadness, their anger, their worries,” Beyer said. 

“Placement instability starts a cycle of loss and increased feeling by children that they don’t belong and then that reduces their ability to trust adults,” Beyer said. 

The feelings overwhelm the child and their caregiver, and the result is that the child eventually moves again often despite the caregiver’s efforts, she said. 

Beyer recommended that the state adopt a range of recommendations.

They include:

  • Put one or two children in apartments or houses staffed by the state.
  • Increase rates for foster parents and relatives who are taking care of children.
  • Provide in-home training tailored for each child’s needs and a respite caregiver to give families a break one weekend a month.
  • Provide therapeutic homes that have staff who help with the child’s needs, a therapist and services to help in the home and school. 
  • Offer trauma treatment for children with an experienced therapist. The current system requires children to wait months, and the therapist is often a trainee who doesn’t see them long-term.

Hotel costs are high in part because they require overtime. Beyer said small individual youth homes would be a “sensible step” and help children who may not be able to adjust to a residential program with other children, all without requiring staff overtime.

After the meeting, Fariborz Pakseresht, director of the Oregon Department of Human Services, which oversees foster children, told the Capital Chronicle the agency is grateful for Beyer’s report and said it’s objective with good insights. 

He said it’s critical to meet the issue head-on, with everyone taking a collective responsibility to help children.

“I think we have enough people of goodwill and enough smart people in the room” to accomplish that, he said.

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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.

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