New Vision Programs, a chain of foster homes for troubled children in Vancouver and Lacey as well as Clackamas and Milwaukie, Ore., has sued the state Department of Social and Health Services for pulling its kids out of its facilities without proper notice or explanation.
The suit, filed in Thurston County Superior Court by Tom Rask of Portland firm Kell Alterman & Runstein, says that New Vision was following a corrective "compliance order" with DSHS regarding staff background checks and house staffing when the state performed an unannounced, drop-in inspection. That was in March. After that, the suit says, the state initiated a "stop placement" order on most New Vision homes.
Late in April, the state started removing children from the homes. (One home in Lacey seems to be well managed and has been left alone, according to the state's pleadings in the case.)
Before the state stepped in, New Vision "repeatedly requested an opportunity to meet with DSHS to discuss its concerns, but none was provided," the lawsuit says. "Instead, DSHS proceeded to begin removing children from (New Vision) homes without notice or justification given."
The suit cites a state law that says DSHS must provide at least 72 hours' notice before removing a child "absent a court order or emergency situation." The suit also says there's supposed to be a conference with the family in which the wishes of the child and family are taken into consideration.
New Vision owner Andre Karam and program director Trent Hall said they received little but encouragement and positive feedback from frontline state workers this spring, but that one particular official, Randy Roberts of the Division of Licensed Resources, has been personally hostile during meetings and seemed intent on shutting New Vision Programs down. Roberts is named in the suit.
The state has not revoked New Vision's license or canceled its contract, according to spokesman Thomas Shapley; at this point it has simply decided to pull out the kids. The state's documents in the case say that "numerous serious safety issues" persisted this spring despite attempts to help New Vision make corrections.
Those issues include allegedly leaving children unsupervised, failing to provide adequate food and medical care, failing to get proper background checks on staff, and altering incident reports. New Vision has denied all these findings.
Because the state pays New Vision per child, its suit says, the company could be forced out of business by the state's actions. New Vision had asked for a restraining order, to stop the state and return the children, but on Friday morning a Thurston Superior Court judge denied that request.
Rask said the hearing "was the first round in a ten-round match."
Meanwhile, some parents of children who were placed with New Vision said they are concerned about the company's staffing and safety record -- but that they blame the state for abruptly swooping in and setting their kids' progress back.
Laurie Molinsky of Vancouver said her 16-year-old son ran away from a new placement in Lacey -- the only New Visions home still accepting placements -- last week and is now missing. Since then the state has been contacting estranged members of her family -- people who are not appropriate for it to contact, she said -- to ask after her son.
"They're supposed to be experts in children, but they have created a total mess," said Laurie Molinsky.
Her husband, Mark, though, called The Columbian the next day to say he was just as angry with New Vision as he is with the state. The 16-year-old -- a big guy who lifts weights, has anger issues and was in trouble with the law prior to being placed at New Vision -- was never supposed to be left unsupervised, Mark Molinsky said, and had vowed to bolt if he was moved. The state moved him to Lacey, and New Vision left him unsupervised, Molinsky said, and he "walked out the door and rode away on a bicycle." The boy "has a history of running," he said.
Laurie Molinsky added that her son wasn't thrilled with the New Vision placement at first, but he was getting used to it. "He was doing better, absolutely. He was doing tutoring, he was putting in his community service hours, he was moving forward with his life," she said.
Mark Molinsky said he is furious with both agencies and barely knows where to begin to look for redress. "I'm just a little fish in a big pond," he said.
Walt Campbell of Stevenson also said his adopted son "was on the upswing," "was doing great" and "got a glowing report" from his schoolteacher since settling down in a New Vision home in Milwaukie, Ore., a few months ago. Then he was abruptly moved, Campbell said, and "nobody knew why. They just wanted to get him out of there."
Campbell said the boy's history of abuse and neglect started at birth, and his behaviors are so challenging that he'd been rejected by several other group homes before being placed at New Vision. "This really sets him back," he said. "My kid is the fallout of the state bureaucracy."
Karam and Hall reasserted an earlier claim that some of the children removed from New Vision homes have been winding up in homeless shelters or on the street. Chris Case, an official at DSHS, denied those allegations last week, calling them "rumors."
Karam and Hall insisted that those rumors are facts. "Everything that we told you is definitely happening, and the state is lying," said Hall. Late Thursday night, he added, another child who had been removed from a New Vision home in Lacey walked 12 miles from his new placement in Yelm back to Lacey -- only to find the house shut down. Hall said he got a call about the child at about midnight and had to "figure something out" for that child.
"These kids want to go home, and home to them is New Visions," he said.
Consulted again, Shapley said DSHS had again "reviewed the individual status of each child who was moved from one of these homes. None of the children was in a hotel alone, or in a homeless shelter or 'on the streets,'" he said in an email. "New Vision staff did allow one child to run away."