Douglas ESD will take over contract for juvenile department’s foster care

{child_byline}SANNE GODFREY

The News-Review

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Education for foster children who are housed by the Douglas County Juvenile Department will be taken over by the Douglas Education Service District, according to an announcement made by Douglas County Commissioner Tim Freeman at Wednesday’s commissioner’s meeting.

Freeman said a firm commitment was made just after 8 p.m. Tuesday to provide Douglas ESD with the resources necessary to provide education services and the county would not have to cancel its contract with the state.

Freeman worked with the governor’s policy advisers and directors from the Department of Human Services, Department of Education, and Oregon Health Authority, as well as Phoenix School, Roseburg Public Schools and the Douglas Education Service District to come to the resolution for the past month.

Douglas ESD administrators did not respond directly to questions from The News-Review, but instead released a statement that said, “Thank you for your questions. Douglas ESD is currently working out the details and logistics for providing educational services for foster youth in the care of the Juvenile Department. We expect to be able to share more information once we work through this process. Our priority is ensuring these youth receive a quality education, and we are committed to working with local partners to make that happen.”

Douglas ESD will take over the educational contract from Phoenix School of Roseburg, which gave the commissioners notice on Oct. 21 that it would cancel its educational contract at the end of November. The juvenile department is required to provide education, as well as other services, to children in its care.

“I’m grateful for Phoenix School to have the courage to bring this issue forward,” Freeman said. “It started this discussion. They were correct that the current funding stream and system did not provide them the resources to provide adequate education that by law should be available to these youth.”

Douglas ESD will receive assistance from Roseburg Public Schools and the Oregon Department of Education in providing services and funding will come from the Department of Human Services, according to Freeman.

Douglas County provides housing for up to 36 students in three different locations. The Fowler House holds up to 16 boys, River Rock holds between 12 and 14 youth of any gender, and Rising Light can have up to six female residents.

Freeman, who was given delegated authority by the Douglas County commissioners, sent a notice to the state on Oct. 23 to terminate its contract to provide housing for these foster children in Douglas County by the end of November. Freeman has since rescinded that cancellation.

“The Oregon Child Welfare system has a capacity issue,” Department of Human Services spokesman Jake Sunderland wrote in an email. “And while capacity is a struggle across the entire foster care system, it has most acutely impacted the state’s ability to provide treatment to the children within the system who have experienced the most severe traumas and have the most intensive behavioral or psychiatric health treatment needs.

“The program in Douglas County, and those similar to it, provide much needed in-state residential treatment options for some of Oregon’s most vulnerable children,” he said.

The Oregon Department of Human Services agreed to provide technical assistance, training and additional funding to the educational program, according to Freeman.

“Primarily we are working with other partners in the state to ensure that the program in Douglas County gets the support it needs,” Sunderland said. “We are also working to amend our contract to clarify that the program is not itself responsible for providing education services to children placed there.”

Oregon Department of Education would be responsible for the education services, Sunderland said.

The county was made aware in late September about concerns from the Phoenix School in providing education to the students.

Freeman pointed out that many of the students in the program have increased needs and individualized education plans, as well as health and mental health concerns.

“When we take on these kids, our facilities become their homes and our staff becomes their parents,” Freeman said. “We’re there every day. Our staff is there raising these children.”

Sunderland said the changes made to the contract in Douglas County could strengthen and preserve the state’s ability to provide appropriate services to the most vulnerable children in the foster care system.

Freeman noted that partners throughout the state worked early mornings, through lunch, late nights and during weekends to make sure a solution was found for the children.

“If I thought these youth could be served somewhere else better, sooner, that’s the decision we would have made,” Freeman said. “Ultimately, we feel their housing situation is better in our facilities than in a motel somewhere. There’s really nowhere else to take them, so it’s likely they’d go in the motels. If they were still in this area, they’d still have to be served by some school system here, at least in the short term.”

Due to the notice Freeman gave to the Department of Human Services, it also meant that staff members for the juvenile department were given notices of potential layoffs.

“Our juvenile director, Aric Fromdahl, and Deputy Director Rob Salerno were giving updates to staff as things progressed to try to keep them informed about the progress that was being made,” Michael Kurtz, the county’s director of human resources, said. “Commissioner Freeman did a great job, bringing all the partners to the table and bringing a solution that could work for everybody in the community and not just one segment.”

Kurtz said that the county tries to give employees fair notice of impending layoffs several weeks in advance and that this really was an 11th-hour decision by all parties.

Freeman mentioned that not all parties were initially receptive to making changes and that deadlines to come up with solutions were extended several times.

“There were several ‘no path forward’ moments,” Freeman said. “We had a pretty difficult call on Friday. It didn’t look real good, but I had committed to continue to work on it until the very last moment, and luckily we did.”

A tentative resolution was reached around 1 p.m. Tuesday, which was put in writing by the Department of Human Services on Tuesday evening.

While students continue to have a place to stay and a place to learn, the Oregon Health Authority will look over data to make sure that the mental health needs of these children are addressed and funded.

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Sanne Godfrey can be reached at sgodfrey@nrtoday.com or 541-957-4203. Follow her on Twitter @sannegodfrey.

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