In child welfare circles, it's sometimes said that heaven holds a special place for foster parents, those selfless souls who provide temporary homes for needy children.
Mary Holden, executive director of Portland foster care agency Give Us This Day, has taken in thousands of kids during the past 15 years, including some of the state's most challenging cases.
"All kids matter," Holden says. "We take very difficult kids and we hang onto them."
People familiar with Holden's operation, however, say she's no angel of mercy.
"The kids aren't being taken care of," says Maurice Gibson, who came to Give Us This Day as a foster child and worked there for seven years as an adult. "They're just being warehoused."
Last year, 11,443 Oregon kids spent at least one day in foster care, at a cost to taxpayers of $76 million.
The state contracts with 109 private foster care providers, ranging from single-family homes that serve one child to agencies that serve 1,000 kids annually.
Interviews with child welfare experts and former employees, and thousands of pages of public documents, illustrate that Give Us This Day is unique among those providers for several reasons:
• Give Us This Day serves the most troubled, challenging kids—children who have been sexually abused, beaten, starved and abandoned.
• Give Us This Day has been the subject of longstanding complaints to the Oregon Department of Human Services and the state Department of Justice about conditions at its homes, the treatment of its children and the organization's use of public dollars.
• Four group homes Holden operated have been listed in more than 1,000 police reports in the past 10 years.
• Holden has for years failed to pay creditors, many employees, the Internal Revenue Service and local tax authorities.
• Holden, by her own admission, violated state nonprofit laws and Give Us This Day's bylaws by improperly selling nearly $700,000 worth of real estate, including property donated by Multnomah County.
Yet the Department of Human Services continues to fund Give Us This Day, and DHS officials acknowledge they treat it more leniently than any other provider.
Evidence of the organizationâs serious dysfunction has been abundant for years. Holden insists Give Us This Day has taken good care of foster children. She acknowledges many financial challenges but blames the DHS. âThe reason we have so many problems is we donât get paid,â Holden says. âWe are just people who donât get paid.â
Now the DOJ says it plans to seek "the organization's dissolution" for financial reasons. But the DHS, which funds and regulates Give Us This Day, continues to back the organization.
âWeâve continued our relationship with Give Us This Day based on their ability to provide care safely and successfully,â says DHS spokesman Gene Evans.
Former employees find that surprising.
DeMarcus Rogers worked as a counselor at a Give Us This Day group home for boys in Southeast Portland in 2013 and 2014.
"On a scale of 1 to 10," Rogers says, "I'd give that place a zero."
Mary Holden, 55, grew up in Mississippi. She recalls starting elementary school in a segregated building and coming of age in a time of rapid social change.
âWe went from President Kennedy and Martin Luther King getting shot to the decade of âfree to be you and me,ââ she says.
Holden moved to Portland to attend Lewis & Clark College. She later taught at Cleveland and Jefferson high schools, and left following a cancer diagnosis.
After a divorce, her second, she took a job in 1998 with Give Us This Day, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit foster care agency founded in 1979. "We used an extended-family model," Holden says. "It was not about what mental illness or behavioral problems kids might have. It was a place where they could always go."
By 1999, she had become executive director of the state's only African-American-run foster care agency. She started another nonprofit called Big Mary's Legacy/Homes for Angels, and took over the Alfred Yaun Child Care Centers.
In 2001, Holden was honored on Martin Luther King Jr. Day with a Metropolitan Human Rights Center Award for "helping youth in need."
She lives in a hillside West Linn home, keeps a vintage Mercedes coupe in her garage and drives an Infiniti SUV.
But Holden says she has poured her earnings back into Give Us This Day, liquidating her pension and mortgaging her house for the organization's benefit. "I'm the last one who gets paid," she says.
For much of the past decade, Give Us This Day operated four group homes in Portland, although financial troubles led to the sale of two of them, the most recent one in May.
It's hard to know exactly what goes on inside the group's two remaining houses.
Give Us This Day's flagship property is a 5,500-square-foot, six-bedroom home on Northeast Rodney Avenue that Holden calls Big Mary's House. A dusty Chevy Suburban with two flat tires and a beat-up Honda Civic occupy the driveway.
Fronted by soaring elms, the tan Tudor-style house with green trim sits on 2½ city lots and is assessed at $824,000. It's licensed to hold 18 girls.
In a February inspection, a Multnomah County tax assessor noticed "several notices on the door for shut-off of services."
The house was in disrepair, with a basement full of junk and closet doors that couldn't be opened. "The attic is finished and partitioned into rooms, but lacks access from a regular staircase," the inspector wrote. "The roof appears to be failing."
Another Give Us This Day home on Northeast 11th Avenue, just north of Fremont Street, is also in rough shape, with a roof near failure and broken metal blinds lining its windows. A man who recently answered the door said it's no longer a group home. (The DHS says both homes remain licensed for foster care.)
Six former employees interviewed for this story who worked for Holden between 2012 and this July say Give Us This Day's foster care group homes often lacked basic safety measures.
Records support that assertion. In 2012, for instance, a Portland Fire & Rescue inspector found the fire-alarm system at the Northeast Rodney home didn't work.
The inspector, Joseph Thornton, returned six more times before the alarm was fixed. Thornton's notes say he "discussed revoking state licensing due to lack of compliance with repairing fire alarm."
Thornton reported that Tom Heidt, a DHS licensing official, was even more frustrated.
"Tom stated that he has been trying to get this facility shut down and has been unsuccessful due to 'political' reasons," Thornton wrote in a March 13, 2013, report. "Tom was actually hopeful that we at the fire marshal's office would be able to shut it down." (Through a DHS spokesman, Heidt says he doesn't recall saying that.)
Former employees say the homes' decaying exteriors were better than conditions inside.
Maurice Gibson says in 2013 he provided a Department of Human Services investigator with evidence of child neglect and abuse at Give Us This Day. He says the investigator substantiated the allegations but nothing changed. The DHS investigator with whom Gibson communicated declined to comment on specifics of the investigation because of juvenile privacy laws but confirmed he corroborated Gibson's story.
The DHS rejected WW's requests for records of complaints and investigations regarding Give Us This Day, citing juvenile privacy laws.
State Sen. Sara Gelser (D-Corvallis), who chairs the Senate Committee on Human Services, says that's unacceptable.
"When you are looking at a publicly paid provider, information about complaints and investigations should be a matter of public record," Gelser says.
Other records provide clues about Give Us This Day's care. Licensing inspections in 2012 and 2014 found numerous problems, ranging from failure to perform criminal background checks on foster parents it subcontracted to care for kids, failing to notify DHS case workers of "critical incidents," not documenting medication or making sure kids got counseling and medical appointments. The DHS says those shortcomings were addressed.
In the past 10 years, reports show Portland police responded to four Give Us This Day group homes more than 1,000 times, visiting a location on Southeast Tenino Court an average of once a week.
Most of the police reports concern runaways.
It's no surprise that troubled kids run away from foster care. But people who worked at Holden's facilities say staff members were often neither properly trained nor hired in sufficient numbers to supervise severely troubled children.
"These kids—they got no families," says Gibson, who worked at the Give Us This Day home on Northeast 11th along with his then-wife, Holden's daughter. "The cops don't care about them. The state doesn't care about them. And Mary, she doesn't care about anybody."
Other former employees also tell of squalid conditions at the homes.
Shatyra Washington worked at the group home on Northeast Rodney and also took Give Us This Day kids into her own home as a foster parent. (In addition to placing children in the group homes, Give Us This Day contracts with foster parents who take kids into their homes. Give Us This Day takes a cut from the state for its referral services.)
"When I worked at Rodney, I was kind of shocked," Washington says. "I wouldn't put my dog there. They had moldy bread and no hygiene products for the girls. Bathrooms were dirty, and the whole place was disgusting."
Although Washington says foster kids received better care at her home, she says Give Us This Day staff members rarely conducted state-required follow-ups after lodging kids with her.
"They never came around and checked on the kids Mary placed in my home," Washington says.
Holden denies Give Us This Day neglects children. âWe keep kids clean and we keep them safe,â she says. âWe always serve our kids well.â
Michael Balter recently retired as executive director of Oregon's Boys & Girls Aid, which provides foster care. Speaking for himself and not his former employer, Balter says Give Us This Day has a poor reputation.
"My understanding is that DHS and others have investigated Give Us This Day, but always just put them on a corrective action plan," Balter says. "Government agencies have turned a blind eye to violations because they don't have a lot of options that are culturally specific."
In other words, the state didn't want to ask too many questions about a minority-run organization that took challenging children off the state's hands.
DeMarcus Rogers says employees knew the state paid a significant amount of money to support Give Us This Day's foster children, yet staff often personally paid for kids' food at the Southeast Tenino facility and collected clothes, backpacks and other items from thrift shops and churches.
Rodgers says he requested more resources—and his paycheck, which was often late—but he was told the state's slow payment was the problem.
"Where did the money go?" Rogers asks. "I'd like to know that."
Give Us This Day served about 300 children last year.
Each child who enters foster care is covered by an individual contract with the DHS.
The department places kids who are relatively trouble-free directly with families, paying a rate of $25 a day. But the kids it places with Give Us This Day are more challenging.
Taking difficult kids, often on an emergency basis, is a valuable service. It is also lucrative.
The DHS pays Give Us This Day nearly five times the base rate it pays for less troubled kids. The current contract amount is $118 a day, plus $15 an hour for one-to-one supervision.
Over the past three years, the DHS has paid Give Us This Day an average of nearly $1.6 million a year.
It's difficult to determine where all that money went.
As a nonprofit, Give Us This day must file annual tax returns with the state and federal governments. Those returns are public records. But Give Us This Day hasn't filed a state tax return since 2010. That means the organization's finances, including Holden's compensation, are a mystery.
Holden acknowledges not filing tax returns, blaming the failure on poor staffing and her health issues.
Available records suggest financial distress, however. In the past 10 years, for instance, former employees at Give Us This Day filed nearly a dozen complaints with the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries about late or nonpayment of wages. Five former workers, including Gibson, filed lawsuits.
Some of those complaints resulted in legal judgments. But even when a court told Holden she must pay, she has dragged her heels.
In 2013, a former Give Us This Day employee won a $154,000 wage claim in Multnomah County Circuit Court. His attorney was ultimately forced to take the rare measure of garnishing state payments to Give Us This Day.
"It is very unusual for a child welfare provider to be garnished," DHS controller Shawn Jacobsen tells WW. "This is the only provider in the child welfare system to be garnished or levied in the last few years."
In recent years, Give Us This Day has battled constantly with the DHS over money.
"It's very difficult to get paid," Holden says. "DHS's payment system is just mayhem."
Emails show the department was unhappy with the nonprofit's lack of documentation and regularly questioned whether Give Us This Day was actually providing the services for which it billed the state.
Records show in June 2014, for instance, Give Us This Day asked to be paid for 279 hours of one-to-one foster care but initially provided no documentation of the work.
Despite continual battles, Holden's nonprofit continued get paid.
âThe reality is your client was treated more favorably than other providers,â wrote Jeffrey Wahl, the agencyâs attorney, in an Oct. 28, 2014, email to Give Us This Dayâs attorney.
For example, unlike any other Oregon foster care provider, Give Us This Day regularly asked for—and received—large cash advances.
The DHS routinely granted such advances, in effect providing Holden's organization with sizable interest-free loans.
"This provider has requested advance payments on a continual basis for many years," says Jacobsen. "No other child welfare providers have requested regular monthly advance payments."
Despite special treatment, Holden complained to the DHS earlier this year.
"This is beginning to feel like sharecropping, or even worse, slavery," she wrote to state officials in an April 7 email. "As African-Americans, we have been there before, and it is never a good thing. We simply hope, pray and sing Negro spirituals like the slaves of old."
Holden says over the years she sent picketers to highlight racial discrimination against Give Us This Day on at least three occasions: once each to the Department of Justice and the Legislature, and once to the office of a business counterpart.
âFor us, itâs like Jim Crow never went away,â Holden says. âNobody cares about us or helps us.â
But over the years, one influential lawmaker helped.
Margaret Carter, the state's first female African-American lawmaker, was elected to the Oregon House in 1984, and advanced to the Senate in 2000.
In 2006, Holden says, when Give Us This Day's state funding was imperiled, Carter led the charge to preserve it.
"I've known Mary Holden for a long time," Carter says. "She's very family-oriented and has passion for children."
In 2009, then-Gov. Ted Kulongoski named Carter, then 73, deputy director of the DHS.
"I resigned from the [Give Us This Day] board when I joined DHS," Carter says. "I told Dr. Holden and others that it would be a conflict of interest for me to stay on."
Carter acknowledges that while she was DHS deputy director, Holden called her for help with the department. She says she responded as she would for any foster care provider.
"Give Us This Day would run into problems because they were so small," says Carter, who retired from state employment in July 2014.
"I would call people together to see if we could do something."
"Margaret was certainly an advocate for children and families in her Portland community," says Evans, the DHS spokesman. "But that advocacy did not impact DHS's actions or decisions."
Today, Give Us This Day's troubles are mounting.
The county tax assessor's office determined that since Holden stopped filing tax returns and lost her nonprofit tax exemption, Give Us This Day owes $71,000 in back taxes on the Rodney Avenue house. The county is preparing to seize the house.
In April, DHS officials temporarily stopped sending children to Give Us This Day—because the IRS was preparing to garnish $168,000 in unpaid payroll taxes. To raise money, Holden hastily sold a house that Give Us This Day had earlier obtained nearly free from the county. The referrals started again.
And last week, after WW pressed the DOJ for results of the agency's investigation, the DOJ told WW it is hoping to shut down Give Us This Day.
"Ultimately," says DOJ spokeswoman Kristina Edmunson, "we are seeking the organization's dissolution, either voluntary, through a settlement, or through litigation."
The DHS is aware of that possibility. "If such an action as dissolution were to occur," Evans says, "the department would work to make sure children are appropriately placed with as little disruption as possible."
Holden says the DOJ is "persecuting" her, but her biggest priority is to make sure her foster kids are taken care of if her organization is shut down.
Maurice Gibson, who spent one-third of his life living or working under Holden, wonders what took the state so long.
âWeâve put it out there whatâs happening, and if the state doesnât do anything, they donât care either,â Gibson says. âI canât believe theyâre still giving her money.â