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Lawmakers ordered to comply with subpoenas over misconduct (copy)

Any time a child dies from likely abuse or neglect within a year of when welfare workers were asked to check on the child, Oregon law requires the state to do a timely review and disclose what went wrong.

But yet — in the latest symptom of the struggles facing Oregon's child protection system — state officials are failing to conform with either the spirit or the letter of the law. A devastating investigation by The Oregonian shows that state officials have failed to issue these reports by the deadlines imposed by the law, if at all, in cases stretching back 18 months. And in cases when the reports have been published, the newspaper found, they have excluded significant facts. Just six summary reports have been published by the state so far this year, leading to questions about how many abuse deaths have gone unacknowledged.

Officials at the Department of Human Services told the newspaper that 2017 changes in the state law give the agency an indefinite amount of time to make public the report of a child's death, as long as an internal review is underway. 

That was news to state Sen. Sara Gelser, the mid-valley legislator who pushed for the changes: "The bill doesn't say that," she said. She was referring to the 2017 measure (Senate Bill 819) that clarified the responsibilities of the critical incident response teams that are assigned by the department to cases in which a fatality involving a child was the result of abuse or neglect.

The reports from these critical incident response teams (CIRT is the acronym) are meant to reveal flaws with the state's child-welfare system and also to hold the department accountable for mistakes that could have been prevented. The public summary reports refer to children by their initials and leave out other identifying details. Still, they represent some of the only opportunities the public has to examine the inner workings of the department.

The entire process dates back to legislation that Gelser championed in 2007 after the 2005 death of Karly Sheehan, the Corvallis 3-year-old who died from physical abuse. Child welfare workers left the child in the home where she was later killed. Karly's Law, as the legislation came to be known, requires that children with suspicious physical injuries be seen by a designated medical professional within 48 hours of the start of an investigation.

Considering Gelser's long experience with child-welfare issues, it's a sure bet that Department of Human Services officials are in for a grilling when her Senate Interim Committee on Human Services convenes in a couple of weeks for meetings intended to set the stage for next year's legislative session.

A spokeswoman for the department pointed to "staffing, leadership and statutory changes that contributed to delay the process of CIRT reporting."

Gelser didn't seem particularly sympathetic.

"The law is the law," she said. "It's a floor. It's not aspirational."

Nevertheless, Gelser doesn't buy into arguments that this latest outrage is consistent with an increasing lack of transparency from the administration of Gov. Kate Brown. Gelser said she personally has seen Brown push for more information about child-welfare issues.

"I agree the look is not good," Gelser said, "but I don't put this on the governor. ... It has been my experience that DHS can be tone-deaf in matters of communication and timing."

That's a gentle way of putting it. 

Gelser noted that the reports in the past have led to important changes in the state's child-welfare system, including a centralized state hotline people can use to report suspected abuse.

But that can't happen if the department doesn't produce these reports in the timely fashion required by law. Gelser probably doesn't need any additional encouragement about this, but she and her colleagues need to keep the heat on department officials. It might help if the governor were to add some public heat as well. (mm)

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