ROSEBURG — 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 being 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 six.

A year ago, Oregon child welfare leaders signed a court settlement 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, particularly ones equipped to care for children grappling with trauma, mental health challenges or developmental disabilities.

One year after the settlement, child welfare officials say they’ve complied and begun phasing out their use of hotel rooms as temporary homes for children in the state’s care. On any given day in December, three foster children were spending the night in hotels, compared to 15 in February 2018.

But over the same time period, the state has placed dramatically more children and teens in institutional settings including repurposed juvenile jails. Since July 2018, the state has had around 400 foster children assigned to live in such settings, according to state figures. 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 first 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 takes the position that 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 in a Feb. 25 interview. “They can be suicidal and homicidal. They can have self-harm or have harmed others.”

The Department of Human Services did not 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 gray 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 during a tour of the facility in January.

For a 15-year-old girl from Multnomah County assigned to the facility last summer, the program in Roseburg, 180 miles from her home, 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. It feels as though it’s a converted jail facility.”

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. The state’s attorney pointed to an assessment by the Douglas County facility’s staff that it was the correct placement for the girl. Lawyers for her mother and tribe agreed, with the mother’s lawyer stating that the mother wanted her daughter in a facility where she would not run away.

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 has not 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.”

Douglas County has housed foster children at other facilities for years. But last summer, Fromdahl said, Douglas County opened half of its juvenile jail to children “who are being diverted from hotels” in order to help the state comply with the settlement.

Teens from around the state stay at Douglas County’s new River Rock program, including eight from Multnomah County from July through January — one-third of the 25 teenagers in the facility during that time. The 13- through 17-year-olds spent two weeks to more than six months living in the cinderblock group quarters, according to information provided by the county.

Multnomah, Klamath and Josephine counties also have residential programs for teenagers from the foster system in repurposed wings of their juvenile jails. Unlike private programs, they are not licensed because under Oregon law the state lacks the authority to regulate county-run care operations. A proposal in the Legislature, Senate Bill 181, would change that. It would hold the county programs to the same standard of child abuse and neglect currently applied to other types of programs. And, by licensing county facilities, it would give the state another tool to force improvements.

Institutionalized Oregon foster children also live in a Grants Pass group home for 12 boys, a psychiatric residential treatment facility and related facilities in Utah, a group home for 14 boys in Salem and scores of other non-home placements.

Nationally, the movement in child welfare is away from caring for children in institutional settings, which research has shown yields poorer outcomes for kids than living with families. It was codified in 2018 in the Family First Prevention Services Act championed by Oregon’s U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, which aims to provide families with services to help them keep their children at home and reduces states’ use of low-quality group homes.

In a statement to The Oregonian/OregonLive, Wyden said that his law is built around the “accepted principle that families are usually best-suited to prevent trauma for children and to reduce the need for foster care.”

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