Last fall, when an exhausted new mom wanted time to consider vaccinations for her newborn, the infant was taken from her by the on-call pediatrician at a Portland hospital, who claimed "medical negligence." A caseworker from the state Department of Human Services, without a judicial review, had the child removed and allowed the attending nurse to vaccinate the child "with whatever they wanted to give" against the parents' permission. This happened even though Oregon allows parents to opt out of vaccinations. The mother was allowed to see her baby only for the purpose of nursing her and then escorted out of the hospital by police.
Throughout this illegal nightmare, a DHS caseworker falsified reports and placed numerous roadblocks in the way of this family wanting to parent their newborn. Despite this, many Oregon families came forward to help them. With the aid of attorneys who offered to represent the family pro bono, the case was dismissed, with DHS conceding the woman was an excellent mother.
Some months later, this mother and I had a meeting with U.S. Rep Suzanne Bonamici, D-Beaverton, and with the help of attorney Bob Snee, we set out to amend the state law. State Sen. Brian Boquist, R-Dallas, introduced legislation on our behalf that would clarify that refusing or delaying vaccinations of a child does not constitute abuse.
While the bill did not pass, state Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, helped ensure that DHS issued a statewide memo to inform caseworkers that refusal or delaying vaccinations alone does not constitute abuse.
This change is a step forward, but as documented by a recent audit by the Oregon secretary of the state's office, Oregon DHS has a statistical reputation of removing children: 30 percent above the national average.
Previously, DHS was doing better by focusing more on prevention, community partnerships and differential response, a practice that gives those responding to abuse allegations more flexibility so they can meet families' individual needs. Differential response was removed last year by a state senator in collusion with a DHS employee, based on a limited report that focused on just three counties that were not implementing it well. We've recently learned that one county alone saw a 400 percent increase in children being removed from their homes.
We need to correct the legislative overreach by eradicating the current atmosphere of fear within DHS and stopping the inappropriate removal of children from their families. Caseworkers and their supervisors need to acknowledge parents' rights and help bolster families that need support. These services already are in place here in Oregon.
As the state's former child welfare director stated in a recent OregonLive guest column, foster care is a last resort.
Oregon needs to get back to its roots of building families. Judges need to focus attention on keeping the families together rather than easily pulling them apart by quickly siding with caseworkers. Oregon laws need to be amended to give equal and fair representation in court to underprivileged families.
All of the cases I've advocated for involve low-income parents who cannot retain their own attorney. Oregon's court-appointed attorneys have little incentive to help reunite families.
While DHS desperately needs more resources, the agency needs to change its internal, unspoken policies of quickly erring on the side of removal versus keeping the family together. Adding more staff (which sees a 23 percent annual caseworker turnover), more foster parents, and throwing more taxpayer money at DHS is not going to resolve the problem.
I've met some wonderful staff at DHS who have their hearts and intentions in the right place. A renewed focus on prevention, community partnerships and differential response will, in my opinion, have a significant improvement on our child welfare programs.
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