PORTLAND — The Oregon Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday that the Department of Human Services didn’t do enough to ensure that a man in prison on child sex abuse convictions could reunite with his son.
The decision stems from a 2012 case involving a father who was imprisoned as a 25-year-old for having sex with a 15-year-old girl. The man’s son was in foster care, along with several of the son’s half-siblings.
The Department of Human Services found that the man, identified only as “M.K.,” needed a psychosexual evaluation before it would permit contact with the son, born in 2007. A Department of Human Services caseworker found that a relationship between the father and son would “be a good thing,” and the agency asked the father to complete the evaluation.
But the father is imprisoned in Lakeview, Ore., a rural area near the California border, and the only doctor the agency found to conduct the evaluation asked for $5,000, more than the $1,000 DHS says it typically pays for such work. The agency refused and said it would seek another doctor.
The child had been moved out of foster care and sent to live with his mother in March 2012. But in August, the agency once again pulled the child and his half-siblings from the mother’s home because she and her newborn had both tested positive for methamphetamine.
By October, the son had spent almost two months in foster care, and the father asserted that, should he get a positive assessment in his evaluation, he would be the best person to serve as a parent to his son.
Oregon law permits DHS to block a parent from custody of a child for a number of reasons, including a conviction for rape, sodomy or sexual abuse of a child. But the appellate court ruling noted that DHS didn’t argue that law.
The father argued that “the one roadblock” toward reunification was the agency’s delay in getting his psychosexual evaluation. He said DHS should arrange it despite the cost.
DHS responded that it had a “limited pot from which to take money” and that the father could wait for a lower-priced evaluation, while still saying he couldn’t be ruled a fit parent without the evaluation.
A juvenile court agreed with the agency’s reasoning on cost, and also found that the father couldn’t be found fit to serve as a parent without the evaluation.
The appellate court disagreed, and found that DHS should have made a “reasonable effort” to determine whether the evaluation was worth paying. The court said the agency can’t claim to both need the evaluation to give the father a chance at reunification, and then refuse to pay for it based solely on cost.
Instead, both the costs and the parent’s benefit must be considered, the court ruled.
“Put bluntly,” the court ruled, “when a parent contends that DHS’s efforts have not been reasonable because the agency has declined to provide a particular service, the court’s ‘reasonable efforts’ determination should include something resembling a cost-benefit analysis.”
Because many of the details of the case are sealed, it’s unclear what the next step is. If the father is successful in getting a psychosexual consultation it would remain confidential.
The father is due for release in November.