Lawsuit Involving Portland Students About Child Sex Abuse

A recent lawsuit filed in Multnomah County has brought attention to the way child abuse investigations are handled in Oregon and raised important questions about how the state responds to child perpetrators. The lawsuit, filed against Portland Public Schools, the nonprofit Latino Network, and Multnomah County, centers around allegations of child sexual harassment, assault, and rape that occurred about two years ago.

According to the complaint, a female student, who was 9 years old at the time, experienced multiple instances of sexual harassment or assault by her peers during school hours. Additionally, she was reportedly raped by two other children in an after-school program. The survivor’s family is seeking $9 million in damages, alleging that the school and after-school program were negligent in their response to the incidents and failed to promptly notify law enforcement.

While school and county officials have refrained from commenting extensively on the lawsuit, it has brought to light broader concerns about how Oregon addresses child abuse, particularly when the perpetrators are also children. State agencies and lawmakers are currently grappling with these issues and comparing Oregon’s processes to national best practices.

Several questions have arisen in this context. Who should be responsible for investigating child abuse? How should the state respond when the perpetrators are below the age of criminal culpability, often in need of support themselves? House Bill 4086, introduced during the recent short legislative session, aimed to address some of these concerns. Initially, the bill sought to change when the Oregon Department of Human Services (DHS) is required to investigate child abuse, including removing the requirement to investigate abuse by minors and some “third parties.” However, DHS officials clarified that the bill primarily focused on cases of abuse by strangers and online sexual exploitation, as the Department of Justice already leads investigations of online crimes against children.

Senate Bill 155, passed in 2019, reinforced the current requirement for DHS to investigate third-party reports and cases declined by law enforcement. In 2020, DHS conducted investigations into 1,652 individuals, with substantiated allegations in 581 cases, half of which involved sexual abuse. Most of these investigations involved non-familial individuals rather than professional caregivers. Unfortunately, there is limited data available regarding the age of the assailants, making it difficult to fully understand the scope of the issue.