Fired CASA director threatens lawsuit
The former director of Marion County CASA plans to file a federal lawsuit against her former employer, the county, and the state Commission on Children and Families.
In a tort claim notice filed last July, Pam Sornson claims a host of violations, including breach of her free speech rights, defamation, wrongful discharge, and violation of Oregon’s whistleblower law.
A tort claim notice lets a government entity know of potential claims.
In an interview, Sornson said she plans to file her lawsuit this week. She said she hopes the lawsuit draws attention to what she says are problems plaguing CASA programs statewide.
“I’m as much interested in fixing the situation as anything else,” Sornson said.
Since 1987, the Oregon Legislature has appropriated money each biennium for the state’s Court Appointed Special Advocates, or CASA, programs.
The Oregon Commission on Children and Families allocates that money, along with some federal funds, to each county’s Commission on Children and Families.
The counties in turn contract with about 30 nonprofit or government organizations — including Marion County CASA — to carry out the actual programs, which match volunteer advocates with children in foster care.
In her tort claim notice, Sornson says she discovered that the state commission was allocating funds unequally among counties.
Sornson says she was retaliated against for trying to achieve a more equitable allocation, and for advocating for improvements to what she says is a disorganized, ineffective statewide system of serving the state’s most needy children.
Sornson, a lawyer, joined the Marion County CASA board of directors in fall 2003 and became its chairwoman in June 2004.
In July 2005, she resigned from the board to become the agency’s executive director. She was fired on March 15, 2011.
In her tort claim, Sornson says that when she started, the agency had no policies or procedures to guide the volunteer advocates. She researched state and national laws and best practices, and developed an extensive reference manual and training program.
In doing that work, Sornson told the Statesman Journal, she discovered the following problems:
-Unequal allocation of state and federal funds to counties.
In the past two biennia, the state commission allocated $87,317 per year to Marion County for an average of 1,000 foster children, or $83 per child. It allocated $13,250 to Wheeler County to serve an average of three children, or $4,417 per child, Sornson’s data shows.
Four counties reported no volunteer advocates but received state funding for a CASA program, she said.
-A high turnover rate for directors of the nonprofit organizations that run the programs.
According to Sornson’s research, 22 of the state’s CASA programs had a total of 65 directors during the past five years. Columbia County CASA has had six directors since 2005, she said.
The high turnover means programs repeatedly pay for training and lack consistency. An additional problem, she said, is that there are no experience or training requirements for CASA directors.
-Inconsistencies among the county programs and a lack of training and support for volunteers in many of those programs.
In summer of 2010, Sornson became involved in a group working to reinstate the Oregon CASA Association, a lapsed nonprofit organization aiming to improve CASA programs across the state.
She joined the board of directors of the reconstituted group, along with Polk County CASA director Chris Olson; retired Circuit Court Judge Charles Luukinen; state Rep. Jim Thompson; lawyer Steven McCarthy; and Lee Effinger, a volunteer advocate for Marion County CASA.
According to Sornson’s tort claim notice, the group was concerned that the Oregon Commission on Children and Families had no relation to the courts or child welfare system and was not providing proper oversight of local programs.
In December 2010 and January 2011, Sornson, Polk County’s Olson and McCarthy began meeting with legislators to discuss equitable funding for CASA programs and the possibility of moving CASA administration from the Oregon Commission on Children and Families to the Oregon Judicial Department, Sornson said.
Sornson thinks the Oregon Commission on Children and Families retaliated against her for that advocacy, pressuring Marion County to force the Marion CASA Board to fire her.
She provided documents showing:
-On Feb. 7, 2011, the Oregon Commission on Children and Families sent letters to the county Commission on Children and Families in both Marion and Polk counties, saying their CASA directors’ advocacy with the legislature was a possible violation of state rules.
Polk County responded that it believed no violation had occurred, but the Marion County Commission on Children and Families launched an investigation, asking judges and the state Department of Human Services whether they had any problems with the local CASA organization and requesting documents and information from the group.
-On Feb. 28, Alison Kelley, head of the Marion County Commission on Children and Families, sent a letter to the Marion County CASA Board saying the program was in breach of its contract, for a variety of reasons, and was in danger of being terminated.
Sornson said that at the March 9, 2011, Marion County CASA Board meeting, the board pressured her to stop talking with legislators. In order to save her job, Sornson agreed, she said.
On March 15, Marion County CASA Board members Irene Trent-Valencia and Jim Lewis gave Sornson a letter asking for her resignation in lieu of termination. Sornson refused and was fired, she said. Trent-Valencia was appointed interim executive director.
“There’s really been not a glitch in the program,” Trent-Valencia said in March 2011, days after Sornson was fired. “Nothing is wrong. Our program is excellent.”
“This was orchestrated by the state commission and carried out by the local commission,” Sornson said in an interview.
Kelley declined to comment on the allegations and potential lawsuit, as did Trent-Valencia, Marion County Commissioner Janet Carlson, and Irene Bell, interim transition director of the Oregon Commission on Children and Families.
tloew@StatesmanJournal.com, (503) 399-6779 or follow at twitter.com/SJWatchdog
Wait! So when someone notices that a program is wrong, and when a person tries to fix a problem it is obvious they must be wrong... CASA must be perfect, right? Otherwise that would mean that these "representatives" for our children could be screwing things up. Go figure.? Thank you Pam Sornson for trying to help, but it seems that the state prioritizes it's current reputation over what is truly just and correct. I wish you luck, and I truly hope that the CASA program can learn from this and truly fix it's internal issues.