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Oregon lawmaker gets few answers about contractor that put foster kids in unlicensed short-term rentals

A pair of shoes, in the doorway of a home

Oregon child welfare officials have spent years struggling to find appropriate places to house the state’s most vulnerable children.

Illustration by Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

A state lawmaker asked top officials with the Oregon Department of Human Services what taxpayers got in return for a $1.3 million contract with a nonprofit paid to care for vulnerable children. State officials couldn’t say.

In a legislative hearing on Wednesday, Sen. Sara Gelser Blouin, the Corvallis Democrat who chairs the Senate Committee on Human Services, honed in on one of the smaller contracts the state paid to a Keizer-based nonprofit, Dynamic Life.

“I wondered if you could talk through what Oregon taxpayers got for that $1.3 million and those deliverables and how you ensure deliverables are provided before [paying]?” Gelser Blouin asked.

Fariborz Pakseresht, the director of ODHS, said he had some of the same questions Gelser Blouin had, including about the deliverables, invoicing, approval process, administration and management of the contract.

“We are currently conducting a thorough, internal assessment with our relationship with Dynamic Life as a provider and a contractor,” he told lawmakers. “Our internal audits office is also auditing our child welfare fair contracting processes and regulatory controls over contractors … We are also considering an external independent review of these matters of concern.”

Wednesday’s hearing was the most significant public conversation since an OPB story last fall highlighted concerns with the company.

The state has been under fire for years for its inability to find adequate placements for kids placed in foster care. It has put kids in hotel rooms and out-of-state private facilities that were accused of widespread abuse. Those practices have led to lawsuits and a judge appointing what’s known as a special master.

Department of Human Services Director Fariborz Pakseresht, Child Welfare Program Director Marilyn Jones and Child Welfare Treatment Program Manager Sara Fox testify in front of the Oregon Senate Committee on Human Services on Oregon foster children in out-of-state facilities on April 11, 2019.

FILE – Department of Human Services Director Fariborz Pakseresht, right, testifies in front of the Oregon Senate Committee on Human Services on April 11, 2019, in Salem, Ore.

Kaylee Domzalski / OPB

More recently, the state penned a lucrative contract with a religious nonprofit. Oregon paid the nonprofit more than 100 times the amount it pays foster care parents, to watch children in unlicensed short-term rental homes. State officials argued Dynamic Life didn’t need to be licensed, but many questions have now been raised about oversight of the program.

In a 12-month time period, the state paid the religious nonprofit more than $7.75 million to provide support services to about 40 kids at risk of temporary lodging and to those already in temporary lodging, such as a hotel or short-term rental. After an OPB investigation, the state canceled the contract.

Related: Oregon cancels contract with nonprofit that places foster kids in unlicensed short-term rentals

One of the smaller contracts with the company, the $1.3 million which Gelser Blouin broached with lawmakers, was meant to create a mobile child-caring agency. The idea was to offer wrap-around services to families in crisis in their homes to avoid putting kids and teenagers in hotels with the goal of keeping them at home.

Gelser Blouin said she was still left with a lot of questions about how the state spent the money and how it issued such large contracts with seemingly little oversight.

Nathan Webber, who founded Dynamic Life, testified in front of lawmakers saying the articles about his company have been “less than truthful, less than honest, not dignifying.” OPB asked Webber about any factual errors, but he did not provide a response with specifics.

Webber told lawmakers he would like to continue to work with the state.

“I don’t know anybody else other than my son and I that have spent one year living in hotels out of suitcases with kids,” he told lawmakers. He said he spent a long period of time without taking a salary and that his heart has always been doing what’s best for the kids placed in his care.

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