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Abandoned foster child raises lawmakers' ire

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Oregon lawmakers are demanding answers from the state's child welfare agency after a report that a 9-year-old girl in foster care was sent to a Montana facility for six months and injected with Benadryl to control her behavior.

A legislative hearing Thursday largely focused on the news report this week by Oregon Public Broadcasting that also revealed caseworkers didn't visit the girl for months. OPB learned of the case through the child's public defender.

Officials are now working to bring the girl back from the Montana facility owned by Tennessee-based Acadia Healthcare, amid growing concern over the state's embattled foster care system. Eighty-five children are currently living in out-of-state facilities, a number that's more than doubled since 2017, OPB reported .

Sen. Sara Gelser, a Corvallis Democrat, said when she first received the list of the providers housing Oregon's children, she started searching the names online. Stories of licensing violations, arrests, sexual assaults and over use of restraints all started coming up.

Gelser also wondered how the state would know if there were other foster care children housed out-of-state who had similar experiences to the 9-year-old child. That case came to light because the child's family remains involved and because her public defender made personal contact with her in Montana and learned about the injections.

The state is spending about $35,000 a day on the foster care kids out of the state, she said.

"Something here has gone very, very wrong," said Gelser, who chairs the Senate Committee on Human Services and convened the hearing. "We cannot ignore it and we have to keep this issue front and center until we are satisfied each of these kids are safe."

During the hearing, foster care officials announced they plan to stop sending children to facilities owned by Acadia Healthcare, which is facing several accusations of neglect and abuse, although some children still remain there.

Gretchen Hommrich, Acadia's director of investor relations, said in a statement Friday that Acadia's top priority is the safety and well-being of patients.

"If a patient is having an acute episode endangering themselves or others around them and has not responded well to other behavioral control methods, then it is customary to administer medication by injection," Hommrich said. "Medication by injection is only used when absolutely necessary for the patient's safety and well-being. Nonetheless, when Oregon DHS informed us that it does not authorize medication by injection, we immediately stopped the practice."

Fariborz Pakseresht, the head of the state Department of Human Services, said his agency had "dropped the ball" in the girl's case. "I own the mistake. We did make a mistake," he said at the hearing.

Pakseresht told lawmakers that part of the issue has been a reduced number of treatment beds available in Oregon.

Sen. Tim Knopp, a Bend Republican, asked why Child Welfare officials didn't bring that to lawmakers' attention earlier.

"I don't think there is anybody up here in this Legislature that isn't incredibly concerned this happened and we didn't know it was happening," he said.

Oregon State Capitol at sunset. Photo courtesy oregonlegislature.gov