Private and Public Policy Reviews for the Disabled

Oregon Expands Abuse Definitions

By Stephen Rex Goode, BSW

Oregon House Bill 2442 has passed, amending Oregon Revised Statutes (ORS) 430.735, expanding the definition of abuse of people with developmental disabilities. This legislation, which goes into effect on January 1, 2010, adds many new definitions that could result in the investigation by Adult Protective Services (APS) of individuals and workers. Naturally, mandatory reporters will have a whole new set of situations to be aware of and will be required to report incidents.

Definitions of abuse have been added or changed for:  abandonment, neglect, verbal abuse, financial exploitation, seclusion, wrongful use of chemical or physical restraint, and sexual abuse. While no provision in the state’s definition of abuse seems unreasonable, this expansion may create an enormous workload for investigators as new reports come in related to the new categories of abuse.

It drastically alters some of the ways I work. Under the new law, after the first of the year, I may not be able to do some of the things I once did while teaching social skills.

For example, as a vehicle for teaching social skills, I take clients into the community to learn how to not only behave in public, but to learn to “fit in” in social situations. The kinds of activities I have used have included miniature golfing, bowling, pool, and other competitive sports. I have taught clients the fine art of “trash talk” that men often do when playing competitive games.

The new definition of verbal abuse says that I am abusing a client if “threaten significant physical or emotional harm to a person with a developmental disability through the use of  (a) Derogatory or inappropriate names, insults, verbal assaults, profanity or ridicule; or (b) Harrassment, coercion, threats, intimidation, humiliation, mental cruelty or inappropriate sexual comments (ORS 430.735 16).”

Though it may be far-fetched, telling a client, while putting on our bowling shoes, that I am going to kick his butt could be overheard by another worker and reported to APS as verbal abuse. Hopefully, in that situation, APS would tell the other worker that making frivolous reports is wasting their time. Still, it could happen.

Perhaps, for me, the ones that make me the most nervous are the definitions of abandonment and neglect. I only contract for certain services with clients. I also am limited in what I may do for clients through social worker code of conduct and ethics. Life skills training and helping clients learn social skills through community inclusion is very different than being a social worker who sits at a desk doing things like intake interviews and other not in-the-trenches jobs.

The abandonment definition says that I am abusing my client if I “…[desert or willfully forsake] a person with a developmental disability or [withdraw] or neglect of duties and obligations owed a person with a developmental disability by a caregiver or other person (ORS 430.735 1a) .”

For some clients I have a contract for assisting with finding stable housing. With some clients, especially those with credit problems or criminal backgrounds, finding housing in the Portland, Oregon area market is nigh impossible. For more on this, see my blog post, A Shameful Dearth.

I have often found myself in the position of working with a client on a winter day when the weather has turned nasty. The client has no money, no place to sleep, and no prospects for housing. With this new legislation, I wonder if I could be charged with abandoning a client if I don’t offer him a place to sleep at my home.

Doing this would be a pretty clear violation of social work ethics around dual relationships and professional objectivity. Hopefully, the word “owed” in the definition of abandonment will protect me, in that I don’t contract with clients to provide stable housing, only to help a client find it.

Believe me, it is pretty hard to drop a client off on a street corner knowing he doesn’t have a place to live and it’s going to be a cold, miserable night. I have such a client this winter. In this town, he can’t so much as find a room in a boarding house because of credit problems and criminal background.

I see many other potential pitfalls for me as a provider of services in the new definitions. I suppose I will need to adjust again. State rules, agency interpretations, billing requirements, billable definitions, and many other things keep changing for me. In a lot of ways, it seems like the state is deliberately trying to force workers like me to give up and go find another profession. With each new burden, I’m seriously considering it. If I quit, will I be charged with abandonment?

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2 Responses to “Oregon Expands Abuse Definitions”

  1. David McDonald said:

    Interesting how they don’t really talk about “medical neglect” in the revised statute. Far as I’m concerned, the denial of medical treatment and/or medicine, or the neglect to facilitate someone getting screenings they need as they age are clear abandonment issues that will continue until addressed.

  2. Rex Goode said:


    I agree.

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