In the world of foster care, there aren't enough parents who throw caution to the wind. Place their own children at risk. Steel themselves for the endless test of endurance with kids scarred by abuse and neglect.
Ryan Adams was game for 13 years. Then the phone rang in the fall of 2017, and Oregon's Child Protective Services told him he was under investigation. A 16-year-old girl said he'd touched her rear end during her three-year stay at his Eugene home.
During the day, Adams, 40, administered the treatment foster care program at Jasper Mountain, a facility for emotionally disturbed children southeast of Springfield.
For more than a decade, he and his wife were also foster parents. Three girls—ages 9, 13 and 14—lived with the Adamses and their three sons when the investigation began.
Adams was discouraged but not surprised by the teenager's allegation. The 16-year-old had made similar claims about others before, often while transitioning from one placement to another.
There was a time, Adams says, when Oregon officials would have considered the girl's history before launching a six-month investigation. Caseworkers would have teamed up to review her diagnoses and her history, and interviewed her therapists.
But that was before the implosion of Give Us This Day, a motley array of group homes on Portland's eastside, which in turn wreaked havoc on Oregon's Department of Human Services.
That was before Senate Bill 1515 became law, altering the stakes and the standard of proof for the agency's investigations of abuse and neglect.
"1515," Adams says, "holds a heavy stick."
And Adams isn't the only one reeling from the blow, says Fariborz Pakseresht, who took charge of DHS in September 2017.
"After a tragedy happens, you see legislation pass that increases an agency's caseload," Pakseresht says. "The most important thing is not to allow public outrage or legislative outrage, however legitimate, to send the system spiraling out of control.
"That's what has happened since 2015…[and] Give Us This Day."
In the summer of 2015, Willamette Week published a cover story that altered Oregon's foster care landscape.
The story, by Nigel Jaquiss, turned a spotlight on Give Us This Day, a Portland foster care provider run by Mary Holden Ayala. The reporting detailed squalid and unsafe living conditions; more than 1,000 calls for police service at the group homes; a lack of criminal background checks on Give Us This Day's foster families; and Holden Ayala's misuse of state money.
It was a tough, timely piece of journalism, and one with unintended consequences for Oregon's child welfare system.
Shaken by WW's reporting, Oregon's Department of Justice shut down Holden Ayala and Give Us This Day that summer.
Sean Suib, executive director at New Avenues for Youth, says the state's child welfare guardians accommodated Give Us This Day for 20 years because it was too big to fail. Holden Ayala accepted troubled children no one else would.
When the state shut down Give Us This Day, the closure pushed 30 traumatized children into a system overmatched by the intensity of their needs and the cost of their care. That so few children could strain the system speaks both to the acuity of those needs and the state's meager resources. According to numerous providers, kids were moved into homes or residential facilities that could not deal with their volatility or adequately monitor their mental health issues.
The child welfare system reached a tipping point. "Because there aren't the high-level resources for high-acuity kids," Suib says, "those kids were pushed into an already overtaxed system…and blew it up."
"Closing Give Us This Day led to a massive compression of a system that was already ill-equipped and underfunded," says Francis Maher, executive director at St. Mary's Home for Boys.
In the midst of this upheaval—and clearly motivated by the horror stories at Give Us This Day—the Oregon Legislature passed Senate Bill 1515.
Championed by Sen. Sara Gelser (D-Corvallis), the bill mandated more licensed inspectors for child care facilities. It amped up the reporting requirements for alleged abuse and neglect, and it obligated DHS employees to report "concerns" regarding a child care agency that didn't rise to the level of abuse.
The bill also changed the evidentiary standard for abuse or other violations by child care agencies from preponderance of the evidence to "reasonable cause to believe."
Gelser's advocacy was understandable, given some of the harrowing child abuse cases in the spotlight in recent years. She took special pains to assure foster care providers that her bill—which took effect in July 2016—was meant to "hold accountable the Department of Human Services.…It does not put too many regulations on providers."
Providers tell a far different tale.
"Most of the providers were already providing safe environments for children," says Craig Opperman, president and CEO of Looking Glass Community Services. "We were already underfunded, and when 1515 rolled out, there was a whole 'nother level of regulation and investigation."
Those investigations often required staff to be placed on temporary leave, and the costly training of their replacements. Opperman also hired a compliance officer.
Almost immediately, Looking Glass shut down its psychiatric residential treatment center, adding to the state's critical shortage of such facilities.
"The irony is that we had one up and running. But we weren't able to meet the regulatory oversight we needed to comply with 1515," Opperman says. "I like that there are a lot of watchdogs. I love that oversight, but it's really costly. DHS added positions in its licensing and investigating units. I didn't have any money to add positions."
After the passage of 1515, providers had little margin for error. The definition of "abuse" expanded dramatically to include verbal abuse, harassment and "inappropriate names."
"If a DHS caseworker fails to report, he or she loses their job. If we failed to report maltreatment that's later substantiated, it results in revocation of your license," Maher says. "That could include calling a kid a knucklehead." Or missing a dental checkup.
"The reports went parabolic," Maher says. "A total overreaction to the criminal malfeasance by Give Us This Day. It created a more adversarial environment, and it was fear-driven."
Gelser believes some child care agencies needed to shut down: "It was an intended consequence of 1515 that we would take dangerous beds out of the system." She also acknowledges that 1515 initially required a degree of reporting that was excessive. "But that problem got fixed."
Many providers disagree. Employee turnover in the field is running between 40 and 60 percent annually, according to the Oregon Alliance of Children's Programs, and too much of the staff's time and energy is misdirected.
"When I'm responding to bureaucratic overreach, what I'm not doing is being with the child," Maher says. "I'm not giving them attention. That erodes the safety this bill sought to preserve."
That is especially frustrating for providers when so many of the allegations come back unsubstantiated.
In 2014, the state investigated 216 allegations of abuse involving children's care providers or children with intellectual or developmental disabilities.
Seventy allegations—32 percent—were substantiated.
In 2018—or two years after 1515 became law—the Office of Training, Investigations and Safety, or OTIS, investigated 586 allegations, only 84 of which were substantiated. Less than 15 percent.
"Under 1515, everything turned into an investigation," says Dave Ziegler, founder and longtime director at Jasper Mountain. "We went from running a program for helping children to a program that hired staff to handle the continuing investigations. The veiled threat that hangs over everyone's head has caused a lot of people to leave the field."
Between July 2016 and June 2018, Ziegler says, Jasper Mountain was contacted 30 times by DHS investigators about neglect or abuse problems at the facility.
"We had nine total days during those two years when we didn't have an active investigation," Ziegler says.
Not a single allegation was substantiated.
Which brings us back to Ryan Adams.
The teenager—we'll call her Rachel—lived in Adams' home from the time she was 12 until she turned 15, when Adams and his wife realized they could no longer keep her safe. Rachel ran away several times. She was hanging with the wrong guys at high school. On the afternoon she decided to go to Las Vegas with several of them, and their guns, Adams says, he called Eugene police.
Rachel was subsequently moved to a residential treatment center in South Dakota. A year passed. She missed her foster family. She called Adams and his wife often. She'd decided the Adamses were the best thing that had ever happened to her, and she wanted to come back.
When Adams insisted in an October 2017 phone call that was not possible because of her unsafe behavior, Rachel hung up and told residence staff Adams once touched her rear end.
A therapist might describe this as "reactive attachment disorder." Knowing she would not be allowed to return to the Adamses' home in Eugene, the teenager lashed out, believing that sabotaging the relationship would be less painful than another round of rejection.
Officials in South Dakota weren't taking any chances. They called Oregon DHS. Because the allegation was sexual in nature, the three foster girls living with Adams were removed from his home, and the investigation began.
Adams' day job at Jasper Mountain involved him in a community of some 25 foster parents and their caseworkers.
"When those three kids were removed from my home, every caseworker had the same response," Adams says. "They said they'd seen this happen again and again since 1515 passed—families being disrupted over allegations that previously would have been resolved in collaboration and problem-solving."
Adams said three of Rachel's former therapists were prepared to testify to her history of false allegations: "They were told, 'Nope. If you weigh in, it will taint the process.'"
Instead, Adams says, the DHS investigator accused him of grooming behavior because he sometimes kissed Rachel on the forehead at night, and he and his wife held her hand on walks.
Many of the 16 children who had lived in the Adamses' home over the years were interviewed, as were his biological sons. He and his wife were allowed no contact with the three girls who were removed from the home, even when their subsequent placements failed.
"The investigation blew up his life," Ziegler says. "Over a six-month period, he had this cloud over his head. He had a tough time with it."
In May 2018, DHS concluded its investigation and declared the allegation unsubstantiated, with no findings of abuse.
This past April, Adams quit his job at Jasper Mountain. He also decided he could no longer be a foster parent, when such investigations put the girls in his home at risk. In a child welfare system that has precious few resources, he's no longer one of them.
"I could not believe we lived in a community where we did the work we did, and made the sacrifices we made," Adams says, "and they would swoop in one day and tell our kids, who thought they would live with us forever, that they had to go God knows where."
In August, finally, Rachel apologized to Adams in a series of text messages.
"I understand if you never want to talk to me again. I know what I did was beyond terrible," she wrote. "When I was [in South Dakota], I missed you guys so much and it felt like you guys were slowly moving on from me.
"I just wanted to tell you that you [all] were the best thing that has ever happened to me, and I'm sorry for throwing it all away.
"I just found out a couple of months ago that all the girls were [taken] away from you. I went to [DHS] and told them all I said was a lie and explained everything. I have never stopped loving you guys. I understand if you want nothing to do with me, but I couldn't not say I was sorry, 'cause it eats at me every day."
That last line is especially painful for Adams. "Rachel is someone who has been told from a very young age that she is a monster," he says. "She was 3 or 4 when she first went to a facility. She has blamed herself for hurting people and losing people.
"What breaks my heart is that 1515 gave her one more reason to hate herself."
WW is grateful to have received support from the Jackson Foundation for this article.