By Erin Olson and Josh Lamborn
Last week, a courageous and angry Multnomah County jury awarded two little girls a substantial amount of money for enduring nearly two years of physical, sexual and emotional abuse in a state-certified foster home. The jurors’ verdict – for every penny they could legally award – was clearly intended to send a loud and strong message to the state of Oregon, and we hope the Oregon Legislature, the Department of Human Services and the other state and local agencies charged with the safety of foster children were listening.
There is no more vulnerable a population of Oregon children than those who are taken into protective custody by DHS because they have suffered abuse or neglect in their families of origin. We simply must find better answers for placing these children than in the homes of people like Kimberly Vollmer, and up until 2009 there was a better option – the Children’s Receiving Center.
While the Children’s Receiving Center was open, DHS Child Protective Services workers had a safe, professionally staffed, child-centered place to take children while a longer-term placement was found. The CRC was the product of the collaborative efforts of both public and private organizations, and its construction and operation were supported by federal, state and local politicians who touted the center as a critical component of the child welfare system. The closure of the CRC in 2009 due to budget cuts went largely unnoticed by the public, but not by the Child Protective Services workers charged with finding safe shelter for the sad and confused children they must take into protective custody.
When Kimberly Vollmer was certified as a foster parent in 2011, DHS foster home certifiers overlooked or ignored her obvious limitations. All of the certifiers who testified at trial spoke of the desperate need for foster homes, and in the closing summation to the jury, the state’s attorney argued that whether a foster care placement is reasonable depends on what is available. That is not – and cannot be – the standard.
The state of Oregon must do better for these children, and not just the Department of Human Services, but all the state and local agencies that are charged with the care and safety of children. Rule changes are important and warranted, but having a safe place to put the children taken into state custody is critical.
The Children’s Receiving Center fell victim to budget cuts, but the number-crunchers forgot to factor in the consequences to children placed in foster homes like Kimberly Vollmer’s when they were doing their cost-benefit analysis. The jury – who took to heart its role as the conscience of the community – recognized the consequences, and so should the rest of us.
Erin Olson and Josh Lamborn are the attorneys, respectively, for the two abused girls, known as N.E. and E.S.
Originally published in the Oregonian