I’m standing outside the Central Police Precinct in downtown Portland, Oregon. Officer Eli Arnold and I have bicycled over to meet two of his colleagues, returned from a drug bust. We examine the proceeds of the crime on the hood of a squad car. The officers weigh the fentanyl powder on a small scale, record the amounts, and take out a few bags of pills to show me. A pill falls to the ground; one of the officers rushes to return it to the bag.

Fentanyl is easy to lose. Arnold, with the Portland cops for six years, tells me that addicts can take more than 20 pills a day to feed their addiction—unlike, say, people using heroin or cocaine, where a few hits daily will sustain them. For addicts, with minds already impaired, the likelihood that a tiny pill will drop on the floor and roll under a table without being noticed is high. That’s how kids find them, think they’re candy, and eat them.

Portland recorded 137 fatal overdoses in the first half of 2023, compared with 2022’s 12-month total of 155. Within a single ten-day period, three children under the age of four had overdosed and died after coming into contact with what the police said was fentanyl, “left unsecured in their homes.” Nonfatal overdoses also seem to be rising among kids, at least according to one social worker at a local hospital. He recently saw a three-year-old who had ingested fentanyl. Emergency responders were too late in administering Narcan, and the boy is now permanently outfitted with a tracheal tube. Of the 358 fentanyl cases that the Oregon Poison Control Center handled in 2022 (a 220 percent increase from 2021), 46 were pediatric.

It’s not just the pills. Fentanyl fumes can harm children (and adults), as can touching the foil where it gets cooked. Kevin Dahlgren, who does homeless outreach in Portland, recently encountered a mother and her young child playing with fentanyl foil. “I told her not to let him play with that. It’s no different from ‘don’t play with a needle.’ ” Terrance Moses, founder of the homeless-outreach group Neighbors Helping Neighbors PDX, says that he has to wash his clothes after entering the homeless encampments—the fumes stay on you. In certain camps, he dons a hazmat suit.

Children live in these grim places; no one knows how many. But Moses has seen their faces peeking out of tents. “I mean infants, all the way up to high school. At first, [the parents] are standoffish,” he says. “They hide their kids because they don’t want to be reported.”

Moses, an African American army veteran who moved to Portland from Philadelphia almost three decades ago, started working with the homeless in 2016, initially helping them to dispose of their trash. Then he started bringing hygiene kits. Seven years ago, he mostly dealt with adult men, including many vets. But in the years since, the drug crisis and homelessness have exploded—as of April, about 18,000 people were homeless in Oregon, a number up nearly 23 percent from two years prior, and including more women and children.

A National Drug Helpline report identified Oregon as the state with America’s worst drug problems. According to the 2021 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, Oregon ranked last in the nation for the percentage of people with substance-use disorders needing, but not getting, treatment. The passage of Measure 110 in 2020, which decriminalized the possession—though not the sale—of all drugs has made things much worse. (See “This Is Your City on Fentanyl,” Summer 2023.)

Portland’s, and Oregon’s, disorder and homelessness woes are getting coverage in major news outlets. Even the New York Times recently admitted that drug legalization hasn’t gone as progressives expected. Too often ignored, however, is how the scourge harms children.

Terrance Moses, founder of the homeless-outreach group Neighbors Helping Neighbors PDX, says that he used to deal mostly with adult men but has begun to encounter more women and children on the street.

It’s easier to see the effects on teenagers. Drug use, drug-dealing, and overdoses have all become common in Portland public schools. Hundreds of kids have been missing from the schools since the pandemic. While some families moved and some students transferred schools, others, as a Portland Monthly article put it, “simply vanished.” They may be living on the streets, lured by the drugs readily available in the homeless encampments.        

Pam Pearce is the founder of Harmony Academy, Portland’s first recovery high school for kids battling substance-use disorders. Harmony doesn’t take the place of a rehab facility but provides students with support groups and other strategies for coping with the temptation to start using again. Pearce, a former addict, says that she knew that Measure 110 would have dark effects. She saw how the campaign described “small amounts” of drugs as okay. “I’ve never met anyone who does heroin casually on a Friday night. If you’re using 2 grams of coke or 40 opioid pills or 12 grams of shrooms, you have a drug problem. That’s not the same as having a glass of wine.”

Even if children under 18 are technically not supposed to possess drugs under the new law, the city has created a “perfect storm,” Pearce says, by “normalizing drug use for kids.” During Covid, she adds, “we made sure that people could still get weed and booze delivered to their homes,” even as other businesses remained locked down.

Moses observes: “When we decided it was okay for people to have a small amount and it’s not considered a crime, I think that started that alarming trend of ‘now we can openly do it. We won’t go to jail for it.’ ” Moses heard all the arguments that Measure 110 would help “people who are sitting in jail for having small amounts of marijuana on them,” but he still didn’t vote for it. During the few days I spent in Portland, it was mostly the nonwhite, working-class men and women who told me that they knew that Measure 110 would bring chaos. Noting the homeless encampments on the freeway ramps and slamming her hand on the steering wheel, my Hispanic Uber driver asked with exasperation, “What did they think was going to happen?”

Portland can seem dystopian. A naked homeless man in a wheelchair goes by the front of my hotel as I’m leaving one morning. Inside a supermarket, I witness a manager yelling at someone walking out with stolen items under his jacket. Officer Arnold and I bicycle around for a couple of hours and see people openly cooking fentanyl over public flowerpots. Arnold asks someone urinating on the corner whether he knows about the public toilets nearby. A homeless woman sporting an L. L. Bean duffel bag screams at a sanitation worker for asking her to get her stuff out of the way so that he could clean the sidewalk. She threatens Arnold when he asks her to move, but she relocates across the street. Tents blight almost every block. Urine stench pervades downtown. Storefronts are empty. The buildings still in use have put up large fences so that the homeless don’t take over their steps.

We ride past an elderly woman pushing a walker. Arnold says that he caught her selling pills out of the compartment under it. He shows me the intersection where drugs were sold a few weeks ago. Now that cops have made a few busts there, the deals have shifted elsewhere.

For all the havoc that Portland’s lax drug laws, soft-on-crime policies, and burgeoning homeless population have visited on the city, few observers have noted their impact on young children. When abused or neglected, the kids are often hidden by their addict parents from other adults.

The availability and acceptability of drugs, combined with what Pearce calls “dismal” rehabilitation services, have produced a “shitshow for the child welfare system,” she says. Arnold agrees. The week before I arrive, he was watching an intersection with binoculars from the second floor of an office building when he noticed a couple selling drugs. The father had a baby, a few months old, strapped to his front in a carrier.

Arnold doesn’t come across a lot of young kids on his beat, but he remembers those he sees. A few years ago, the transit police contacted him. A woman on the train, high on drugs, had a small boy with her, maybe three years old, with bruises all over his body. Arnold brought the child to the hospital and called the Oregon Department of Human Services (ODHS), which sent someone to meet him there. The boy had internal lacerations, including to his liver. Arnold returned to the hospital the next day. He found that the ODHS had made no progress in separating the mother and the child. He brought in another cop, who investigates child-abuse allegations.

All Oregon counties have a team of law-enforcement officials and ODHS caseworkers assigned to handle child-welfare issues. But few I speak with in Portland say that they use the child-abuse hotline. Terrance Moses says that he has a “backdoor” contact at police headquarters he can go to if he sees a kid in danger. He isn’t surprised when I tell him about the complaints that I hear about the hotline’s long hold times. He worries that the department is “understaffed.”

Dahlgren sees the problem as more ideological than financial. A few years ago, he informed the ODHS that he had seen a naked three-year-old girl, standing alone in the woods near discarded hypodermic needles, with her parents “nodded out a half-mile away.” The operator refused to send anyone to investigate, telling him, he says: “Poverty is not a crime.” Another time, he found a homeless child who seemed on the autism spectrum. “He was running up to every adult trying to kiss them on the face,” acting “super-friendly” to strangers, Dahlgren recalls, while a “dude” stood “50 feet away with scary dogs”—a disaster waiting to happen. The child’s mother told Dahlgren that she had housing options but “chose to be there.”

Apparently, that’s fine with Oregon’s DHS. The narrative that child protective services rips kids out of their homes just because their parents are poor has become pervasive in academia and activist circles. Many child-welfare agencies thus face pressure to take a hands-off approach.

The notion that child neglect is only another term for poverty has little evidence to support it. A recent study of almost 300 case files in California, for instance, found that “nearly all investigations of physical neglect (99 percent) included concerns related to substance use, domestic violence, mental illness, co-reported abuse or an additional neglect allegation (i.e., abandonment).” And a study that compared outcomes for children whose families received welfare benefits with those of kids who also received benefits but were reported for neglect found significant differences—the neglected kids had higher rates of criminal behavior and teen pregnancy and lower rates of high school completion, suggesting that something worse is going on in homes with reported neglect.

“It’s very hard to get agencies to do real investigation,” Dahlgren laments. “They’re very woke with their belief system. They want to tell you about a person’s right to be homeless. Do kids have rights? What about those who aren’t allowed to speak for themselves or who are barely talking?” Even activists like Moses, who believes that it’s DHS’s role to “try to keep [families] together” and that many of these situations could be resolved if parents and children received housing, says that he worries about the agency not investigating when families get reported. “That’s why we have these systems in place,” he says. “Can you go check?”

Often, the answer appears to be no. A foster parent, who tells me that kids belong with their parents and that the system should focus heavily on how to strengthen families and meet their material needs, called the ODHS’s nonemergency line after finding “a couple of toddlers living in a car” with their mother. “It was really cold, and I asked, ‘Can someone check on them?’ I was told they don’t do checks.”

What does it mean to be a child living in a homeless encampment or in a car? Bill Russell, a former prosecuting attorney in Idaho who recently retired after 30 years heading the Union Gospel Mission (which offers programs for homeless and addicted people in Portland), says that people who ignore such calls need to think harder about what this means for kids. It’s “actively terrifying for a kid to be living with a mom in a car because there is so much tension and anxiety,” he says. He understands that many of the women are hiding from abusers, or worried that their children will get removed—but ignoring these situations isn’t the answer.

Things are getting worse, Russell believes. Now, he charges, the “DHS is no longer drug-testing neglectful parents”—even those facing investigation. “So you don’t know if the parents are meth-active or heroin-active or whatever. That’s off the table.” The Oregon DHS did not answer multiple requests for comment for this article. But one DHS worker tells me that, while the refusal to drug-test isn’t official agency policy, to order a test requires filling out at least four forms, making it improbable that regular testing will happen.“ This is insane,” says Russell. “We want to stay ignorant about one of the driving forces of abuse and neglect.”

How to handle drug-abusing parents? On the one hand, Moses understands “folks who are like, ‘Well, we don’t want the government involved in family life, telling people how to raise their kids and what they should not do.’ ” On the other hand, “Can you actually parent if you’re stoned out of your mind or if you’re doing drugs and you can’t rationalize day to day? To me, that’s a no-brainer. If you’re . . . raising kids and you’re not fully there . . . I think we should do something.”

As Russell notes, “a lot of the incentives to get help have gone away. [Before Measure 110], if you’re a parent, you’ve tested positive, your caseworker said there’s a place you can go to get healed, to go through detox and recovery for heroin, and you can take your kid with you. . . . Now, if you’re not testing them, that conversation never happens. There’s no threat to take your kid away.”

Threatening to place a child in foster care might sound cruel, but some evidence suggests that parents with drug problems will respond to this incentive. A study from the University of Michigan’s Youth Policy Lab found that removing children from drug-abusing homes to foster care has positive long-term benefits for the kids—attributable at least partly to a change in parents’ behavior. Looking at “borderline” cases, in which some Michigan caseworkers might have left a child in a home with services and others would have removed the child (and provided services), the authors concluded that foster placement “reduced the likelihood of being alleged as a maltreatment victim by 52 percent. Though not all allegations represent actual incidents of abuse or neglect, we find a similar 56 percent reduction in the likelihood of being confirmed as a victim of child maltreatment.” The difference? The removed kids got time away from the parents, and, perhaps more important, the parents got some time away from their children in order to sober up.

The past few years have opened a gulf in Portland between vulnerable kids and the adults who might have helped them. The city experienced some of the country’s severest Covid lockdowns. Many children never returned when schools reopened. The schools also got rid of their on-site law-enforcement officers in 2020, a move that was meant to forge racial equity but that has reduced the number of adults with eyes on kids who might be in trouble. In the past, says Aaron Schmautz, president of the Portland Police Association, it would have been common to see “police officers who might have engaged with a narcotics investigation who could talk to school resource officers” and find out more about what was going on in a child’s life. “Now you’re completely reliant on DHS.” And police are less likely to find kids needing help because they’re making fewer drug-related arrests.

The legal system is not much help. Amber Kinney, who left the Multnomah County District Attorney’s office earlier this year, described in her resignation letter how her boss, Mike Schmidt, “essentially gutted our juvenile unit at a critical time when the families in our community need support more than ever.” She was particularly disturbed that the DA’s office is “no longer representing the state in general juvenile dependency matters.” Previously, cases where a child is removed to foster care and decisions are made about whether to terminate parental rights would involve a DHS lawyer and a lawyer for the parents and for the children, along with the DA’s legal representative. Too often, Kinney says, the children’s lawyer will say whatever the kid, however young, wants. If a six-year old says that he wants to stay with his mother, even if the mother was constantly high or physically abusive, the lawyer will push for that. And the DHS lawyer often favors family preservation. The DA’s office was the only party advocating on behalf of the community.

Kinney’s work mostly dealt with child-abuse cases. “Anecdotally,” she says, “substance abuse is always one of the highest risk factors for children in the home.” On a federal level, experts estimate that substance abuse is involved in at least 80 percent of removals to foster care. But Kinney believes that the state isn’t doing a good job of tracking data or “documenting the underlying cause of [child maltreatment] incidents.” The “system collapsed during Covid,” she contends, and the numbers are now “skewed.” She saw a “big dip in calls to the child-abuse hotline” that coincided with kids not having contact with mandatory reporters.

Oregon state data report a decline in the number of deaths from child abuse and neglect from 30 fatalities in 2017 to 18 in 2021. Kinney and others I speak with find this implausible. Based on the skyrocketing levels of Oregon violence—204 homicides in 2021, compared with 127 in 2017—one would expect the rate of child-maltreatment fatalities to grow. And it’s not just because substance abuse was rising and fewer adults could see these kids; Kinney thinks that some of the deaths are getting mischaracterized. “Sometimes in these investigations, it’s not clear whether a fatality was due to maltreatment,” and determining that depends on “how robust the investigation is, including how quickly law enforcement gets there to gather evidence.”

A child fatality might look like an accident that results from co-sleeping, she says, but in many such cases, a parent has passed out from drugs or alcohol. Someone at the scene must think to draw blood from the caretaker and the baby to see whether drugs were present. Even entering a home during Covid, explains Kinney, became a “whole different calculation for law enforcement and for child welfare,” and “having eyes in the home is much more effective in identifying risk.” When reports happen earlier, she maintains, intervention can happen earlier, too. During the pandemic, “when a kid was wheeled into the hospital, that’s when it became known to authorities.”

Kinney hasn’t seen kids in homeless encampments herself, but she knows from her work on other criminal prosecutions that these environments are “extremely high risk,” including violence and sexual abuse. She would call the child-abuse hotline if she ever found a child in a tent. But “the people in Portland have taken the position that you can live whatever life you live,” she observes—and that seems true for parenting, too. “The standard for parental capacity in Oregon,” she says, citing case law, is “minimally adequate.” What is minimally adequate parenting? “You can parent a child in a tent on the sidewalk.” The law doesn’t care if the parent is using heroin but only “whether their heroin use interferes with their ability to parent adequately. But a parent’s substance abuse can often lead to bad judgment in a variety of ways, including parenting.”

The court also doesn’t seem to care about parents’ history of abuse or neglect. “The situation last month is not fully relevant. What is the presentation today?” says Andy Pulver, senior deputy district attorney in nearby Washington County. He complains that the Oregon Court of Appeals has “whittled down our ability to file charges against parents for failing to provide adequate physical care.” Being in a house filthy “with cat feces everywhere” is not enough. Unless you see “a real impending threat of hypodermic needles on the floor or exposed electrical wires,” the other factors don’t matter.

Pulver was initially not allowed to file a case in which two girls were being raised in an RV, where the parents smoked meth all day. The parents hadn’t emptied the sewage in the RV, either. It was only because “one of the officers who went in had respiratory issues for 24 hours” that Pulver could file charges. “They’ve taken a lot of steps not to criminalize parenting decisions or lifestyles.”  

Moses says that he has to wash his clothes after entering homeless encampments to rid them of drug fumes. In certain camps, he dons a hazmat suit.

In Oregon, as in the rest of the country, government officials and activists have pushed hard to reduce the number of kids in foster care. The number of foster children in Oregon fell by an extraordinary 29 percent between 2019 and 2021 alone. It’s hard to imagine that in 2019, Oregon was needlessly removing almost 1,000 kids from their homes, as that percentage drop would imply.

Yet a shortage still exists of foster homes for kids who truly need them. “Oregon has spent more than $25 million housing 462 kids in foster care in hotels since the state promised to largely end the practice as part of a legal settlement in 2018,” a recent report says. In the first half of 2023, “75 kids ranging in age from 6 to 19 years were placed in hotels.” Twenty had “lived in a hotel for more than 60 days.”

Many of those children need therapeutic foster homes because they have severe behavioral and mental-health needs. But the state also can’t find enough basic foster homes. One Oregon couple I spoke with—Jessica and Elinor—have fostered almost 20 children. During the months when they have accepted emergency placements, they say, they get at least one phone call daily asking them to take in a child or sibling group. They say yes as much as possible, but they declined a state request to take a child who had threatened to kill people.

The couple doesn’t get much help beyond their close-knit network of foster families. Oregon’s low levels of religious affiliation are clearly a factor. Even as other states have seen a growth in foster-care ministries, particularly within evangelical churches, Oregon struggles to recruit and retain foster and adoptive families.

Jessica says that most of the infants she and Elinor have taken in were exposed to meth or heroin in utero. They’ve not yet cared for a child exposed to fentanyl, but some friends have cared for such a child. “I would have felt intimidated about saying yes, because of everything she’s facing,” she says of this child. As Jessica understands it, the child has a hard time eating, is not gaining weight, and must visit the doctor constantly. Both women worry about how little we know about in-utero fentanyl exposure and how unprepared foster parents are for handling such problems.

A recent DHS presentation to foster parents included advice that children need “24 x 7 supervision” around fentanyl. It warns that “overdose can happen at any time with people who are using [and] children can die from small amount of ingestions, smoke, etc.” The presentation may have been a response to an incident recently reported on a foster parent listserv, in which a child experienced substance exposure during a supervised DHS visit with a biological parent and required hospitalization.

Astonishingly, the presentation also states that caseworkers can’t just tell a parent to “lock up their fentanyl” because “people with [substance use disorders] don’t have the judgement or control of their behavior to safely secure the drugs or to do it consistently. Parents have the intent to follow through, but the disease overrides the intent.” Doubtless true; but why doesn’t this insight guide how the DHS—and Oregon law more generally—views addicted parents? Why aren’t authorities more skeptical of drug users’ capacity to parent children?

Of those I spoke with in Portland who voted for Measure 110, their reasoning was almost identical. All felt that the city had promised to provide more rehabilitation beds and transitional housing for addicts. That hasn’t happened.

Homer Williams, the founder of Oregon Harbor of Hope, insists that neither the shelters nor the recovery centers are full. “They used to be, but everything is legal now. You can be peddling drugs. You’re not going to jail. You can be using drugs. You definitely aren’t going to jail. So you keep doing what you’re doing.” Shelters are available for parents with children, too, but as with the mother whom Dahlgren met, the parents feel no compulsion to go in.

I spoke with some teenagers outside a tent next to the freeway. A boy, shirtless and skinny but seemingly sober, says that he sees homeless mothers occasionally with small children. He complains that they get priority for good housing, but “they’re usually back in tents a few months after they trash the place.” A girl rinses out her bong as we talk. She grumbles about the holes in her tent. “I keep asking for a new one because otherwise the rats will get in.” A youth shelter is open across the street, but she doesn’t want to go there—she “has a problem” with the people running it.

Recently, Dahlgren says, he ran across a homeless man with two teenage children. The father said that they preferred to live outside because the shelter wouldn’t take in their dog as well. We’re allowing a man to put the well-being of his pet over that of his children. Just a lifestyle choice, like any other.

Around this city, good people see what they describe as the collapse of the child-welfare system and feel helpless to fix it. They see the dangers that drugs, homelessness, and violence pose for kids. And they wonder how their fellow citizens can turn a blind eye. Child welfare, though, is a problem not as visible. It “requires a deeper level of understanding,” Kinney says. “It goes over people’s heads.”

Top Photo: Untold numbers of children live in homeless encampments throughout Portland, where they are often exposed to violence, drug use, and sexual abuse. (Photographs by Adam Wickham)


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