Attorney says Oregon DHS child abuse prevention problems persist

This March 20, 2016, file photo shows Hart family of Woodland, Wash., at a Bernie Sanders rally in Vancouver, Wash. The SUV carrying the Hart family accelerated straight off a scenic California cliff and authorities said the deadly wreck may have been intentional. (Tristan Fortsch/KATU News via AP, File)

Critics of Oregon's Dept. of Human Services believe the way the agency handled the release of documents in the Hart family case is a sign that it still has serious problems.

Authorities found Jen and Sarah Hart, along with four of their adopted children - Markis, Abigail, Jeremiah, and Ciera – deceased where the family’s SUV plunged off a California cliff in late March. Two other children, Devonte and Hannah, are still considered missing.

On Monday (April 23), DHS released new documents on a 2013 investigation into allegations of child neglect and abuse involving the Hart children.

The claims reflected similar ones that Washington authorities were investigating in the days leading up to the fatal crash -- that the Harts were withholding food from their children as punishment.

“DHS has been dealing with starvation cases back to 2007,” said Portland attorney Scott Kocher. “They told us that they had fixed it then. They're telling us that they've fixed it now. We need real change. We need leadership from Governor Brown. We need leadership at the top of the DHS organization to change how they do business.”

After looking into reports that the Harts were withholding food from their children as punishment, Oregon DHS decided there wasn’t enough evidence to support the allegations.

Kocher said authorities should be well aware that food deprivation child abuse does happen.

In 2012, Jeff and Rebecca Trebilcock were sentenced to more than five years in prison for withholding food from their two adopted children inside their home near Longview.

In 2007, Kocher won a $2,000,000 lawsuit against Oregon DHS on behalf of one child because the agency did not prevent foster parents Thelma and William Beaver from starving and abusing that foster child.

Thelma Beaver was sentenced to 5 years in prison while her husband William received probation.

“Every step of the way,” Kocher said, “they've treated these cases as an attack on the agency rather as us as representatives of children trying to get justice for these kids and trying to provide accountability for an agency that needs accountability.”

In the case of the Hart family records, media representatives had to file appeals with Oregon's Attorney General's office to get DHS to release records from the 2013 investigation.

Kocher said lawyers often have to get court orders to force Oregon DHS to release records. He believes that's a symptom of a much bigger problem within the agency.

“DHS needs to release these records every time there's a matter of public importance,” Kocher said, “That means every time there a significant case of child abuse, the news organizations and the public are entitled to know what happened and why so that there's accountability at DHS, accountability at the governor's office and we can tackle these problems.”

KATU News asked the governor's office to comment on DHS's handling of the Hart records and refusal to talk about how that case was handled.

Governor Brown released a statement that echoes the DHS statement released on Monday:

"Governor Brown strongly advocates for government transparency" and that "release of these records in particular may help prevent a tragedy like this happening in the future."

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