A key state lawmaker will push to strengthen Oregon’s child death disclosure laws after reporting by The Oregonian exposed delays, omissions and failures by state officials to meet current requirements.
The state Department of Human Services is required to promptly review the deaths of children who were likely killed by abuse or neglect on the agency’s watch. The reviews examine what, if anything, went wrong and suggest changes to keep more kids from dying.
But The Oregonian found that agency officials have routinely ignored legal deadlines to disclose those deaths to the public, waiting more than one year to disclose any details about its role in children’s deaths in all but one review published in 2018.
The agency continues to withhold at least two mandatory reviews, including one regarding a 10-year-old girl killed in foster care.
State Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, said she also would ask agency leaders to explain the delays when legislators meet in December to discuss the upcoming legislative session. Gelser leads the Senate Human Services Committee and is a vocal advocate for child welfare reforms.
On Sunday, the day the article appeared in The Oregonian, she drafted a bill that would hold the Department of Human Services to stricter reporting requirements. She submitted the proposal to be considered during the 2019 legislative session, which starts in January.
Gelser said the measure would require officials to immediately publish an initial report regarding a child’s death after convening a team to review the fatality. The bill would require the agency to put together a team within seven days, rather than its current requirement of 10.
The 10-day requirement took effect last year, a change that Gelser supported at the time, because she said the overall intent of the bill was to increase transparency surrounding the review process. The changes gave the department a total of 70 days to complete the reviews, although the team could also ask for an extension. If the reports were delayed, the Department of Human Services is required to say why on its website.
But the Department of Human Services contended in a statement provided last week that the deadline outlined in the 2017 bill is an internal requirement and does not require the agency to make public anything but a final report.
Gelser disagrees with that interpretation. Her new bill would make the reporting requirements even more explicit, she said. The bill would mandate that agency officials immediately publish initial, progress and final reports. Only the information that might compromise a criminal investigation could be withheld.
The Oregonian that the reviews the state has posted this year sometimes omit key facts about case workers’ interactions with families.
One review, regarding the April 2017 death of a Roseburg baby, leaves out three instances that case workers received concerns about the infant’s family before she died.
Gelser’s new bill would require the department to disclose all contacts with the victim or siblings, parents, foster parents or other caregivers.
The proposal would also expand the scope of the fatality reviews to include the death of any child in the state’s custody, even if they are not suspected of dying from abuse or neglect. That would ensure that the unexpected deaths of children in foster care come to public light, such as the March 2017 death of Nicholas Lowe, who was 13 when he died in a fire at his Douglas County foster home.
To increase public accountability, Gelser’s bill also would require the department to include reviewers who do not work at the agency, namely state lawmakers, as part of every child death review team.
Recently elected state Rep. Marty Wilde, D-Eugene, said he contacted Gelser to express his support for the proposed reforms. Adding outsiders will encourage the agency to be more timely, ensure that the process is objective and keep the fatality reviews focused on identifying the root causes of problems, he said.
“These are the lives of children we are talking about.”
The department’s failure to disclose the deaths of children on its watch drew criticism from Republicans, as well.
State Rep. Knute Buehler, R-Bend, placed blame on Gov. Kate Brown, who defeated him this month in a contentious race for the state’s top post. He wrote on Twitter that Brown “cares more about winning elections than protecting vulnerable kids from abuse.”
Two of the state’s delayed child fatality reports were posted the final two days of the election. Brown’s office has said it did not request the agency to withhold the reports.
The Department of Human Services has published only one report since then.