By Sarah Zimmerman

The Associated Press

SALEM — Gov. Kate Brown issued an executive order Thursday establishing an oversight board for Oregon’s troubled foster care system, which has drawn heavy criticism and is the subject of a federal lawsuit alleging abuse and neglect of children in state care.

The governor is establishing a Child Welfare Oversight Board, a panel tasked with developing solutions to challenges within the foster care system.

Brown said she will issue directives based on the board’s recommendations, and a crisis management team will ensure those changes are implemented.

She compared the crisis management team to a “SWAT team,” saying it will act as her “eyes and ears” within the Department of Human Services, which oversees the state’s child welfare system. One member of her executive staff will be embedded within the agency to make sure the governor’s directives are carried out “as efficiently as possible.”

“I think I’m taking unusual steps here because the challenging situations that we’re seeing within the child welfare system,” she said Thursday.

In a statement, DHS said it welcomed the additional support of the governor and is taking its own steps to reassess the way it delivers child care.

The move occurs as DHS is facing a federal lawsuit over alleged mismanagement of its 7,500 foster children, particularly minorities and those with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Lawyers say caseworkers are overburdened and that, out of a lack of proper placement options, children are sent to homeless shelters, refurbished jail cells or out-of-state institutions. Brown said the executive order is not a direct response to the lawsuit, and that the plan has been in the works for months.

Marcia Lowry, who is the executive director of A Better Childhood, the national nonprofit behind the lawsuit, said she hopes the lawsuit will compel a federal court to force an overhaul of DHS. She called the governor’s approach “not adequate.”

“It’s too little, too late,” she said. “If her programs work out then good for her, but I don’t think the children in this state are going to be protected without a court order.”

Lowry said her team will be meeting with the state’s lawyers next week, who have asked that Brown’s name be removed as a defendant in the case. That’s not an option for Lowry, who said Brown needs to be held responsible as the head of state agencies.

“We know she has been involved with child welfare issues, she even campaigned on them,” Lowry said.

When asked if she accepted responsibility for flaws in the agency, Brown told reporters “we all in this state bear responsibility for what is happening in our foster care system.”

“These are all of our children,” she added, saying that she wants to encourage more Oregonians to step up and offer foster kids a home.

Brown’s advisory committees will make recommendations to address understaffing and a lack of placement options for foster youth. They will also advise Brown on the state’s reliance on sending kids to out-of-state facilities, a practice that drew considerable criticism after a news report found a 9-year-old girl in a Montana for-profit institution was injected with Benadryl to control her behavior and went without visits from a caseworker for six months.

The state has more than doubled the number of kids it sends out of state in recent years. About 84 kids are in out-of-state facilities, compared to the 33 children sent to these institutions in 2017. Children spent between 5 and 33 months at these facilities, according to DHS data, and Oregon spent $2.5 million for their care between October and December 2018.

A disproportionate number of these children shipped out of state are minorities. During a floor speech on Wednesday, Sen. Sara Gelser, a Democrat from Corvallis, said 14% of the children at these facilities are Native American, despite making up only 1.6% of kids in the state. At least 13% of those kids are black, even though African American children comprise 3.6% of the population.

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