Starrett: Could local oversight improve foster care system?
The recent audit by Oregon Secretary of State Dennis Richardson highlighting deficiencies in the Department of Human Services' Child Welfare office might have come as a shock to the broader community but foster parents, mentors, case workers and children in state custody, it was an "I told you so" moment.
Children housed in hotel rooms and offices, foster parents and case workers fearing retaliation, and inexperienced child welfare workers with impossible caseloads were just some of what the audit found. It wasn't news to the foster community but rather a brutally honest assessment that was years overdue.
The audit reported "bullying" and "intimidation" by DHS managers warning case workers not to cooperate with the audit investigation.
Foster providers also know what bullying feels like. One longtime foster-adoptive parent told me, "It's not a question of if DHS finds something to charge you with, it's when. It's just not worth it anymore." Foster parents tell me they're giving up, weary of a "hostile" bureaucracy and the lack of pathways to navigate an inconsistent and complex system.
One dedicated child welfare advocate I worked with spoke out publicly about the need for more foster parent support. The next day, he was asked to resign from the state's Citizen Review Board position he'd held for a decade. It's well known within the foster provider community that advocacy comes with a price.
At a local foster parent support group, one parent approached me and whispered, "I called DHS to find out if I'd get in trouble if I came here tonight." That was a chilling indication that the very backbone of our foster care system — our providers — are not only caring for pitifully broken children with often difficult and dangerous behaviors, but they have to do so without the support of the child welfare agency.
In my efforts to advocate for foster parents and children, I have met with legislators as well as former and current DHS leaders. I've formed study groups, advocacy teams and run the gauntlet of red tape for constituents. If I, as an elected official, can't get straight answers, information or resolution for the simplest foster parent concern, how does the average foster parent even begin to get the help they need?
While the new DHS Director Fariborz Pakseresht and Child Welfare Director Marilyn Jones give me much hope for a turnaround, I'm concerned that by virtue of its size, a large centralized state agency may never do a satisfactory job running the foster care system.
Why not let counties give it a try? If counties can administer the state's Medicaid program through Coordinated Care Organizations, why couldn't they similarly oversee child welfare? After all, county governments are smaller, more nimble and more responsive to the people.
With the political will, a legislative fix could include a pilot project. It's an intriguing concept that's worth a try.
Mary Starrett is chairwoman of the Yamhill County Board of Commissioners, a foster child mentor and a member of the the boards of several youth support agencies.
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