A sweeping class-action lawsuit alleging that the state of Oregon has long violated the rights of children in the custody of its child welfare system may proceed largely along the lines that the children’s lawyers spelled out in their complaint, a federal judge ruled last week.
U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken rejected the state’s argument that the federal court should abstain from the case. The state Department of Human Services contended that the relief the plaintiffs asked for would require the judge to inappropriately engage in continuing federal oversight of Oregon state court dependency adjudications. But Aiken agreed with the children’s lawyers that their complaint is not directly related to the juvenile courts at all, but rather deals with the department’s allegedly dysfunctional and deficient administration of its child welfare system.
Aiken’s 31-page decision then went on to uphold many of the complaint’s constitutional and federal statutory claims in the lawsuit, which was filed in 2019 by New York-based youth rights law firm A Better Childhood, with Disability Rights and Davis Wright Tremaine as co-counsel.
The complaint was filed on behalf of three subclasses of children who are the responsibility of the state: the disabled, those 14 and older and those who identify as sexual or gender minorities.
The complaint says the state has failed to adequately address numerous deficiencies uncovered in a series of state and federal audits. A few of the allegations listed in the filing are that the Department of Human Services fails to:
- Hire enough caseworkers or adequately train, supervise and support the ones they have, resulting in overburdened caseworkers and high turnover.
- Sufficiently support, train or pay foster parents, nor recruit enough of them — especially those willing to care for kids with disabilities.
- Properly evaluate the needs of all kids in its care, so caseworkers struggle to find appropriate placements. Therefore, too many wind up in homeless shelters or other institutional facilities or homes where the danger of abuse or neglect is high.
- Make sure youth receive the services required by their case plans.
- Provide older foster children with the support, skills or resources necessary for them to survive on their own when they leave foster care.
There are specific alleged violations of the rights of each of the subclasses. In general, they involve the denial of due process under the 14th amendment, the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act.