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Rules shouldn’t protect child welfare officials

Oregon’s child welfare system has a history of placing foster children in out-of-state residential treatment facilities that were implicated in allegations of abuse, keeping that fact from lawmakers and resisting disclosure of records indicating where the children were sent and what happened to them there. State officials have since returned all the children to Oregon, but now the Department of Human Services is considering changing the rules to make it harder for the public to get information about child abuse investigations.

The department tried to get lawmakers to change the rules last year, saying the move was necessary to protect the privacy of child victims and witnesses who reported abuse. But the names of children and witnesses are already redacted. Legislators declined to make the change.

Now, according to reports by Oregon Public Broadcasting, the agency is trying to accomplish the same thing through the rule-making process, side-stepping the Legislature. The proposed rules would allow DHS officials to deny most public records requests for details of abuse allegations.

If it had not been for public records requests, the public likely would not have learned about the foster children sent to out-of-state treatment facilities.

A lengthy investigation by OPB reporters revealed that the number of Oregon children sent to out-of-state facilities grew by 168% from 2016 to 2018. Most of those facilities were owned by the same for-profit company, Sequel Youth & Family Services, which operated 35 residential treatment centers in 16 states as recently as 2017. According to reports from American Public Media, in the wake of multiple abuse allegations, Sequel has since closed about half of its treatment centers and sold most of the rest to another company — founded by one of the three people who founded Sequel in the first place.

The point here is that Oregon’s involvement with Sequel and the placement of Oregon’s most vulnerable children in places where they were at risk of abuse and mistreatment might never have come to light without public records requests.

A DHS spokesman has said the agency is concerned that Oregon public records disclosures might violate federal child welfare privacy laws, but that “there is a lack of clarity whether that is actually an issue.”

By all means, the agency should answer that question. In the meantime, disclosure rules should not be changed.

The state agency responsible for children in foster care has not done a good job of protecting them in the past. Efforts to block the release of information seem designed to protect the officials in charge, not the children entrusted to their care.