Sunday, May 17, 2020

Oregon using COVID-19 as excuse for hidden foster care, depriving families of due process

Their own “clarification” makes one thing clear: They will sometimes take children when parents have COVID-19

           This story from Reuters is supposedly a “fact check” to reassure people in Oregon that no, the state child welfare agency will not take away your children just because you have COVID-19.  But the “clarification” offered by the Oregon Department of Human Services is anything but reassuring. The agency effectively admits that, under some circumstances they will  take your child if you have the coronavirus.  And they will bypass the already minimal due process protections available to families in order to do it.

          Such abuse of power is alarming in any state - but especially in states such as Oregon, which has a long ugly history of tearing apart families at rates well above the national average.

It all started with this official notice from Oregon DHS:

Effective 4/22/20, if in the course of an assessment a caseworker or supervisor makes the determination that a child will enter substitute care because their caregiver is infected with COVID-19, the caseworker or supervisor will need to select a newly created case note value for tracking these specific entries.

            It’s understandable that some people would read this and think it means what it says: That DHS will take away your child if you have COVID-19.  DHS says that’s not what they meant.  And to an extent I believe them.  If a wealthy parent came down with the coronavirus, but the nanny still was showing up and the parent could isolate himself or herself in one wing of the family McMansion, no, DHS wouldn’t take away the child.

But what if the parent is poor and living in a small apartment? What if DHS deems a parent in such circumstances “too ill to care for the children”?  DHS’s own “clarification” is, in fact, a thinly-disguised sugar-coated threat.  And they’re using COVID-19 as an excuse to make an end-run around minimal due process protections for families and consign children to the chaos of foster care with no attorney for the family, no court review, no chance for a neutral arbiter to decide of the placement is necessary.

            This is done by labeling the placement “voluntary.”  So now, let’s look at the DHS statement “clarifying” the earlier statement:

We do have the capability, within our current rule and procedure, to work with a legal parent/guardian on a voluntary basis, to make a temporary plan for their child(ren) if they are too ill to care for their children. We would explore all options with a parent/guardian in that circumstance including their friends, family and community resources. If we exhausted all options, we could place their child in foster care. This would be a voluntary placement that does not affect a parent’s custodial rights and does not involve the child dependency legal system.

No such thing as “voluntary”

            Notice how often they say “voluntary”? That should send your b.s. meter off the scale. Because in the real life world of child welfare there is no such thing – repeat: No. Such. Thing. as a “voluntary” foster care placement.  Because in child welfare possession is way more than nine-tenths of the law.

            Once you sign the form “voluntarily” surrendering your child to foster care, DHS may say you can get the child back whenever you want because you haven’t given up “custodial rights.”  But all DHS has to do is say: We don’t think you’re ready yet, and we’re going to court. (They can even declare it an emergency and simply get a judge to rubber stamp the existing placement by phone or Zoom without you being present.) Or the foster parent may decide you’re not really suitable and call the child abuse hotline. Either way, the very facts that:

1. Someone else already has physical custody of your child.

2. You “admitted” by agreeing to the “voluntary” placement that you were unable to care for the child, and

3. The “trained professionals” at the child welfare agency and/or the foster parents now deem you unfit

make it extremely unlikely that a judge will let you get your child back.

            Even more outrageous is the way DHS presents the fact that the courts are not involved as though that somehow bolsters the position of the family. On the contrary, as noted above, it means DHS, having secured the parent’s “consent” to the “voluntary” placement can bypass the few legal protections the system affords to families. 

Hidden foster care

It also means, by the way, that DHS can do everything on the cheap – they don’t have to pay the friend, relative or foster parent.  And they can get away with not reporting the placement as an entry into care – making the number of children DHS tears from their families look lower than it really is.  This hidden foster care system is a pervasive problem across the country.

            As for the claim that “We would explore all options with a parent/guardian in that circumstance including their friends, family and community resources” before resorting to foster care with strangers, parents don’t need a giant coercive child welfare bureaucracy for that. 

            For starters, among the many heroes on the frontlines of the pandemic are home health care workers.  If Oregon DHS is serious about helping families stay together when an impoverished parent has contracted COVID-19  it could set up a fund and resources to allow parents with COVID-19 to bring help into the home, just the way rich people do, instead of DHS taking the children out.

            In cases where that’s really not viable, parents can reach out to friends and family on their own.  And if DHS really wanted to help with that, it would set up an online family finding resource entirely separate from child protective services that parents could use to help them find extended family and friends – as opposed to programs that kick in only after child protective services agencies are involved.  

            To really help families, agencies have to relinquish some of their power. Instead, Oregon DHS is using COVID-19 as a smokescreen to wield even more unchecked power over vulnerable families.