State investigated workers at Polk County child welfare for child abuse

Polk County Courthouse (Courtesy of Jolene Guzman/Polk Itemizer-Observer)

Two state Department of Human Services workers in Polk County remain on paid leave and stationed at home after the state investigated them for child abuse that involved indecency, Salem Reporter has learned.

Recently released state records show state prosecutors decided not to charge a supervisor and a paralegal at the agency’s Dallas field office, and the two have been working from home since late November.

Polk County District Attorney Aaron Felton told Salem Reporter he received the report of misconduct last fall and turned it over to the Oregon Department of Justice and Oregon State Police.

“I asked for an independent, outside counsel to investigate probable criminal charges and for the (Department of Justice) to step in to do that because of a conflict of interest, because of the Polk County connection,” he said.

Records show the two were investigated for first-degree official misconduct, endangering the welfare of a minor and private indecency.

Under Oregon law, endangering the welfare of a minor involves exposing a minor to sexual conduct, to illegal drugs or to gambling. Private indecency occurs when a person inappropriately exposes his or her own genitals.

The two were placed on administrative leave Nov. 30, according to state records.

“You are hereby notified that effective immediately, you are duty stationed with pay at your residence. DHS is taking this action pending the outcome of a current investigation,” wrote Human Resources Director Belinda Teague in a hand-delivered notice.

The letter also wrote that the notice was “non-disciplinary in nature.”

The agency initially attempted to redact employees’ names on the notice, citing the names as protected personal information, but in February the state Justice Department ordered the names revealed.

Lt. Tim Fox, Oregon State Police’s spokesman, told Salem Reporter that police investigated the two and the investigation finished in mid-December, when the agency handed their records over to the Justice Department.

On March 15, the Department of Justice informed Felton via letter the department would not prosecute.

“We determined that there is insufficient evidence to prove criminal charges beyond a reasonable doubt. We are closing our file in this matter,” wrote Senior Assistant Attorney General Kurt Miller.

Salem Reporter is declining to name the employees because they were not charged with a crime. But the investigation into their conduct arises at a time when the state agency is being scrutinized for its handling of foster kids – such as housing them in former jails.

The state agency and its field offices are tasked with being the safety net for the most vulnerable populations in the state.

DHS officials told Salem Reporter the two Dallas workers remain on paid leave. One worker is a paralegal, paid $4,295 per month; the other is a supervisor, paid $6,862 per month, according to the department.

However, the state agency did not respond to written questions about what the allegations were and whether the agency is conducting an internal investigation.

Felton told Salem Reporter he could not give more details about the allegations.

“There are still additional internal investigations ongoing, so I am not going to comment on the factual nature of the allegations,” he said.

That separate investigation is not criminal, but whether his office will have to disclose the state’s investigation to defense attorneys if those workers are ever called as witnesses in the future.

The Oregon State Police last month also declined to release the report of the alleged crime, as requested by Salem Reporter. The Justice Department turned down the news organization’s appeal, saying the records involved protected child abuse information.

“We find that it is a record of child abuse to (state police) submitted by the Department of Human Services,” wrote Deputy Attorney General Frederick Boss in a public records order issued Feb. 28.

Boss cited a law indicating that DHS received a report alleging “that a child or ward in substitute care may have been subjected to abuse” and alerted responsible parties. Oregon law mandates confidentiality of such records.

Have a tip? Contact reporter Troy Brynelson at 503-575-9930, [email protected] or @TroyWB.