- Associated Press - Monday, June 26, 2017

Selected editorials from Oregon newspapers:

The Oregonian/OregonLive, June 30, on the lack of foster homes for abused and neglected children

When state officials couldn’t find foster homes for the abused and neglected children in their care, they stuck them on cots in state offices or in hotels for nights on end.

Their caregivers weren’t always certified and rotated frequently. Without a regular home environment, foster kids missed school and at times, lost access to needed doctor appointments and medications.

The Oregon Department of Human Services’ highly questionable practice was highlighted in a lawsuit last year. And appropriately, it drew much concern from the public and lawmakers. So much so, agency Director Clyde Saiki decried the “hoteling” of foster children in a hearing before lawmakers last September.

“It’s not appropriate for that to happen to even one child,” he told members of the House Interim Committee On Human Services and Housing on Sept. 22, 2016. “As far as we are concerned, even one child a night is not acceptable.”

Yet Saiki has allowed it to continue.

The Oregonian/OregonLive’s Maxine Bernstein reported this week that despite Saiki’s concerns, his agency placed 130 more children in hotels. Over the past seven months, toddlers and young children are among those who spent an average of 11 nights in a hotel.

More galling is that the practice Saiki deemed “unacceptable” is now being vigorously defended by the agency’s lawyers. While the plaintiffs who filed the original suit seek to abolish the practice they consider unconstitutional, Oregon’s attorneys are defending it and pushing for its regular use in “emergency” situations.

Of course, if a child is in danger, a hotel or an air mattress in an agency conference room is much better. Yet the most recent data shows these situations are less about emergencies. More often, it’s a matter of course.

In one case, a 9-year-old spent 85 days in a hotel, Bernstein reported. In another, a 5-year-old lived in a hotel for 55 days. Those are awful long “emergencies.”

It stands to reason that caseworkers might struggle to find foster homes for children in rural areas on short notice. But get this: The state’s largest county, Multnomah, has the longest hoteling average at 20 days. Multnomah County, in fact, had the largest number of foster kids in limbo, logging more than 1,000 days in hotels over the past seven months.

When children are placed in state care, the goal for foster programs is to make children feel supported, cared for and comfortable in their new surroundings. While all children benefit from routine, a stable environment is particularly necessary for young people going through the trauma of being separated from family or other long-time caregivers.

By the agency’s own account, sticking children in offices and hotels can deprive children of the basic care the state is required to provide.

Kids shuttled between hotels and agency offices miss school, spending days alongside a caseworker’s desk or in front of a TV. They eat fast food for all three meals. And they may fall behind on medical or mental services they need. In one recent case, an Oregon girl missed her regular mental health counseling and went without prescribed medication for two days.

But this isn’t just bad for kids, it’s also healthy for the struggling agency’s bottom line.

Hotel and food costs add up, as does overtime for the two caseworkers required per-child to provide full-time childcare. The babysitting role also keeps them from the work needed to avoid this problem in the first place: Training and monitoring current foster parents and securing more safe places for kids to stay.

Even Saiki, the agency director, acknowledged the practice hurts his employees.

“It puts a tremendous strain on our caseworkers,” explained Saiki, during the hearing last September. “They work 40 to 50 hours and then spend a night or a weekend with a kid, they can’t do that for very long before they burn out.”

This problem is indicative of a more systemic breakdown of Oregon’s foster care system. The state, which places children in foster care at twice the national rate, can’t find enough foster parents to meet the demand.

There are no easy answers. And the future is troublesome, especially since lawmakers have failed to address the state’s huge budgetary problems that lie ahead. Because of that failure it’s almost certain Oregon’s array of human services will face cuts.

Foster care in Oregon is supposed to help children who’ve already suffered, not extend their suffering. If Saiki can’t address this “unacceptable” issue quickly in-house, Gov. Kate Brown should more aggressively handle the matter unfolding on her watch.

____

The Mail Tribune, July 2, on Rep. Julie Parrish’s push to overturn a tax on hospitals and insurances that will maintain Medicaid coverage for 350,000 Oregonians

Rep. Julie Parrish had a good idea in April, when she proposed shifting state employees’ health care into coordinated care organizations, potentially saving the state up to $1 billion. Now, she’s pushing a bad idea: filing a referendum to overturn a tax on hospitals and insurance plans that will maintain Medicaid coverage for 350,000 Oregonians and help balance the state budget.

The provider tax, approved by majority Democrats with only four Republican votes, would increase the existing tax on hospitals and add a tax on some insurance premiums, raising $670 million. The tax was supported by the hospital industry, and it will leverage $1.9 billion in federal funding that the state otherwise would not get.

Parrish, along with other Republican lawmakers, objects to the provider tax, arguing that the costs will be passed on to customers, although the hospitals stand to get their increased tax payments back in the form of payments for treating Oregon Health Plan patients.

The wisdom of a Band-Aid tax plan to keep the Medicaid program afloat can be debated, and it would have been preferable to see lawmakers enact serious cost-containment measures and restructure the corporate tax structure to balance the budget as they initially intended. Parrish’s proposed changes to state employee health coverage could have played a prominent role in that effort, and it’s unfortunate that the majority Democrats paid it scant attention.

But launching a petition drive to overturn the provider tax, potentially throwing the health coverage of hundreds of thousands of Oregonians into limbo for a year, is irresponsible. If Parrish gathered enough signatures to qualify the referendum for the ballot, the provider tax would be put on hold until the November 2018 election.

Yes, Oregon law provides for citizen initiative and referendum powers, allowing the voters to overturn legislation they disagree with and to enact measures the Legislature can’t or won’t pass. But Parrish’s campaign isn’t a spontaneous uprising of popular will; it’s retaliation by a lawmaker and a political action committee for legislation that didn’t go her way.

Democrats responded to Parrish’s threat by pushing an amendment that would exercise the Legislature’s power to call a special election, in this case for late January, which would allow the 2018 Legislature to take action if voters repealed the tax.

Republicans denounced that move, calling it an attempt to manipulate the result by holding what will likely be a low-turnout election directly after the holiday season.

They have a point. But so do the Democrats. The future of health care, including Medicaid, is uncertain enough given the battle playing out in Congress over attempts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Oregon at least can try to provide some stability for as long as possible. Retaliatory measures such as Parrish’s referendum are not helpful.

____

The Register Guard, July 5, on the request for state voter records by Donald Trump’s Presidential Advisory Commission on Voter Integrity

Donald Trump’s Presidential Advisory Commission on Voter Integrity brings to mind the joke about a man who stood on a street corner snapping his fingers. A passer-by asked him what he was doing. “Keeping the rhinoceroses away,” the man explained. There aren’t any rhinoceroses around here, the passerby said. “See?” the man answered. “It’s working.”

The voter integrity commission is snapping its fingers, demanding that state elections officials provide data on 200 million voters - names, party affiliations, birth dates, criminal records, voting histories and partial Social Security numbers. The commission is looking for the rhinoceros that President Trump claims denied him a popular-vote victory in the 2016 elections: massive voter fraud. The commission can be expected to take credit when it finds that voter fraud is extremely rare.

Elections officials in at least 22 states have said they cannot or will not comply with the demand for information. One of the more embarrassing refusals came from Kansas, whose secretary of state, Kris Kobach, is vice chairman of the commission. Privacy laws in Kansas prevent the disclosure of some of the information the commission requested. The refusals are bipartisan: Democrat-led states such as California and Massachusetts rejected the request, while Mississippi’s Republican secretary of state said commission members “can go jump in the Gulf of Mexico.”

A more measured response came from Oregon Secretary of State Dennis Richardson, a Republican. Richardson took the opportunity to explain the benefits of Oregon’s vote-by-mail and automatic voter registration systems, which result in high participation and low fraud rates. He said that 15 people have been indicted or convicted of voter fraud since 2000 - fewer than one per year. Such fraud usually takes the form of a voter signing the ballot of a spouse or a student who is away at college.

Richardson then offered to send the commission the same voter information that is available to anyone upon receipt of the standard $500 fee. He said state law prevents him from providing such personal information as driver’s license or Social Security numbers. He then warned the commission that it would be a crime to use Oregon’s voter registration data for commercial purposes.

This is the proper response: The commission deserves no better and no worse treatment than any other party. Voter information that is a matter of public record should be provided promptly and at a reasonable cost. Information that is protected by privacy laws should be guarded.

The commission hopes to gather all this information so that it can be compared to other federal databases, such as lists of non-citizen residents and undocumented immigrants who have been arrested. Trump’s expectation is that many matches would be found: “What are they hiding?” Trump tweeted Saturday after he was informed that many states would not grant the commission’s request for information. That’s Kobach’s expectation as well - his claim that voter fraud is rampant in Kansas and elsewhere led to his appointment to the commission. Kobach hasn’t found massive fraud in Kansas, so he’s broadening the search.

Critics of the commission believe that its findings, no matter what they are, will be used to justify efforts to make it harder to register to vote and to cast a ballot - restrictions that tend to suppress participation by low-income and minority voters who are likely to be Democrats. But Trump is more than a garden-variety seeker of partisan advantage. He believes there can be no explanation other than fraud for his defeat in the popular vote. The rhinoceroses, he is convinced, must be kept at bay.

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