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STATE OF OREGON - Director Clyde Saiki, Oregon Department of Human Services.SALEM — A federal lawsuit filed Tuesday to stop the Oregon Department of Human Services from placing foster children temporarily in hotels and offices alleges the practice inflicts emotional trauma on kids and violates their civil rights.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Portland on behalf of two children represented by a temporary court guardian, alleges DHS denied them due process and violated both federal and state civil rights laws.

The plaintiffs seek class action status for the lawsuit, which would extend the complaint to similarly placed foster children.

The lawsuit also criticizes the evidently recent trend of DHS placing more of its charges in hotels, and what plaintiffs characterize as the department’s broader history of “placement instability” for many children in its care.

“The state has removed these children from their homes despite not having any home to move them to,” the lawsuit states in an introduction. “As experts in the field agree, the state’s practice of rendering foster children functionally homeless is unconscionable. It is also unlawful.”

A DHS spokeswoman, Andrea Cantu-Schomus, said in an email Tuesday that the department does not comment on pending litigation.

Department officials have previously said that the number of available beds for children and youth in the substitute care system has decreased in recent years.

At least 63 children have been placed in hotels in 2016, with the vast majority of them — 60 — placed since June, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit claims the department failed to meet its obligation to the two children, who are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act and Oregon’s anti-discrimination statute because of their respective mental health diagnoses.

Both Ed Johnson, an attorney for the Oregon Law Center, and Angela Sherbo, an attorney for Youth Rights Justice Partnership, referred inquiries about the lawsuit to Richard Vangelisti, the plaintiffs’ guardian ad litem.

Vangelisti represents two children, ages 4 and 6, as a temporary guardian in the civil rights matters raised in the lawsuit.

The 4-year-old, who has been diagnosed with adjustment disorder, was removed from a foster home after more than two years there, after she had “very severe meltdowns” or “rages.”

The 6-year-old, who, according to the lawsuit, entered DHS care after repeated reports of abuse by her mother, suffers from several disorders, including post-traumatic stress, anxiety and adjustment disorders.

She was placed in at least eight different locations and had at least 20 caregivers in her first two months of DHS custody, according to the lawsuit.

Reiterating the claims of the lawsuit, Vangelisti said Tuesday that the condition of the children was likely to be exacerbated by the impermanency of their living arrangements.

“Obviously, children in foster care are some of the most vulnerable children in our society, and it’s likely that perhaps as much as 75 percent of children who are not placed are suffering from some kind of emotional, behavioral or cognitive problem,” Vangelisti said. “And so when DHS chooses not to put them in placement with a family member, relative, caregiver or certified foster home, and then, in turn, put them in a hotel or an office, it exacerbates those underlying problems that the children have.”

Vangelisti said that it’s possible that the number of Oregon children in these short-term placements is underreported, based on information DHS has released publicly and on news reports this summer.

The lawsuit states another child — not a plaintiff in the lawsuit — was placed in a juvenile detention facility in Deschutes County for almost a month, despite having no criminal charges, and that the Washington County DHS branch converted part of its visitation center in the district office so children could stay there overnight.

Further, the lawsuit claims that based on DHS data, children in DHS care have also stayed in hospitals longer than they needed to because the agency could not find an appropriate place for them to stay.

Spaces such as hotels and DHS offices are not certified by DHS, unlike foster homes, agencies or residential facilities, and in so doing the agency “is not holding itself to the standards it imposes upon others caring for children,” the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit also claims that the plaintiffs approached DHS about the issue and tried to avoid filing litigation.

An attorney or attorneys for the children sent a letter to DHS on Aug. 16 about the issue, asking to meet to “discuss possible solutions” before Aug. 25, 2016.

Clyde Saiki, the agency’s director, responded, but it’s not clear from the lawsuit what he said. In turn, plaintiffs’ counsel wrote to Saiki again, “emphasizing the urgency of the matter.”

A meeting was proposed by Dr. Reginald Richardson, the deputy director of the department, for Aug. 24, but was canceled, according to the lawsuit.

Vangelisti said he was not present at meetings between the attorneys and DHS representatives, but that the agency has been “cooperative.”

“I understand that DHS, in meeting with the lawyers who represent me, that DHS has been cooperative and that those meetings have been productive, but that at the end of the day, we didn’t reach any sort of agreement as to what should be done in terms of the practice,” Vangelisti said.

The department is trying to turn its child welfare program around after more than a year of intense scrutiny, after revelations of abuse in foster care and agency failures to adequately respond to allegations of abuse.

Kids in Oregon’s substitute care systems are abused at rates higher than many other states, according to federal data.

An external advisory committee appointed by Gov. Kate Brown to assess child safety in foster care and residential facilities reviewed a final report on child safety in the substitute care system compiled by a consulting firm earlier this month.

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