Workplace culture at the heart of DHS problems
SALEM — A federal lawsuit filed against the Oregon Department of Human Services is merely the latest suggestion that the troubled agency needs an overhaul.
The lawsuit, filed last Friday in U.S. District Court, claims DHS mishandled placement and subsequent physical and sexual abuse allegations of three foster children at a home in Keizer. The plaintiffs contend that many of the missteps by DHS in the case were "consistent with its organizational culture and lack of accountability."
Prior reviews and audits have pointed to the issue of agency culture as well.
The agency says that filling vacancies will foster positive changes by reducing workload and stress and are making efforts to get feedback from workers. Experts in public child welfare workforce issues note that hiring alone isn't enough to fix deep-seated problems.
A comprehensive audit of the child welfare program by the Oregon Secretary of State, released in January, said child welfare workers "reported incidents of bullying, intimidation of caseworkers by senior staff, and management efforts to suppress information." The audit found that Oregon's child welfare program is also severely understaffed, and suffers from high turnover.
Both the agency and the Child Welfare program have relatively new directors, and the Legislature has set aside more money for more caseworker and social worker positions in the wake of the audit. In the 2018 legislative session, the Legislature approved $13.3 million from the state's general fund, and increased the amount of federal funds the state is allowed to spend for the purpose by $4.5 million.
DHS Director Fariborz Pakseresht told auditors in January that "appropriate staffing levels will assist the department in mitigating and reducing workload stress factors, reduce staff turnover, and the use of overtime." The agency's Child Welfare program is also working with state analysts to develop a new workload model to improve child safety.
Nancy Dickinson, project director at the National Child Welfare Workforce Institute, says that while studies have suggested a correlation between workforce factors like high turnover and excessive workload, and certain outcomes, no direct relationship has been established.
"We're learning a lot about how complicated it is in these large agencies to make the kinds of systems changes that would lead to better outcomes," Dickinson said.
Dickinson has not worked with Oregon's system, but has worked with child welfare agencies in other states.
She said that if an agency has a toxic workplace culture, hiring more people can certainly help, but other steps also need to be taken to turn things around.
The National Child Welfare Workforce Institute has helped other jurisdictions create teams, made up of agency field staff and managers, whose task is to find ways to improve the agency's climate from the ground up.
Local changes can encourage positive change on the state level, Dickinson said, and it allows employees to have a say in how the agency is run. They feel that they are contributing to make the system better.
"It says to the workers and supervisors that, 'You do matter,'" Dickinson said.
Deborah Reed, an assistant professor at Portland State University and project manager for the Leadership Academy for Middle Managers, which trains middle managers in child welfare, said supporting both new and longtime employees is key.
"If you do a great job recruiting, but don't practice workforce support that's needed on the front end, you're not going to retain," Reed said. "You're always going to be recruiting, recruiting, recruiting."
Oregon is also developing surveys to see why employees stay in child welfare or leave, Reed says.
Both experts spoke to the benefit of creating "learning"-oriented organizations that encourage collaboration and problem-solving in groups. Supportive supervision, leadership and professional development and training opportunities help too.
The hiring itself can't happen overnight, either — recruiting good employees takes time and effort, Reed said. She notes that working in child welfare requires a broad set of skills, from being able to connect with people, to using critical thinking skills, to testifying in court.
Reed said Oregon is making progress in that respect: for one, it's developing a realistic job preview that might dispel any "odd notions" applicants have about working in child welfare and serve as an initial self-screening process.
"Sometimes people are just driven by wanting to do good," Reed said. "You can't fault the motivation, but then they find out what the job is really about, and they're just not cut out for it."
And rather than posting each job individually, which takes more time, the agency is continuously recruiting caseworkers.
For its part, the agency also says it's been working to improve its own culture.
DHS has set up an email box for employee suggestions and a "mapping process" that the agency claims will "help everyone in the program clearly see how they contribute to the overall work of Child Welfare and will help inform the program's quality assurance efforts."
They're also taking suggestions in person. During the first three months of the year, Pakseresht and Child Welfare Director Marilyn Jones traveled around the state to meet with local child welfare staff, foster and adoptive parents, youth who have been in the foster care system, service providers and other members of the community to hear their ideas on improving the child welfare program.
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