SALEM — A year and a half ago, state watchdogs said the system overseeing care for foster kids was in dire need of improvement.
They urged immediate improvements, but a new report released by state auditors Wednesday said the state is still risking children's safety in a system so dysfunctional it will take years to fix.
On any given day, the state is responsible for about 7,600 kids, from babies to teens, most of whom have been removed from their homes because they were abused or neglected. But the workers assigned to manage the state's treatment of foster kids still have too much on their plates, according to an audit report released by Secretary of State Bev Clarno. Progress will take time because of the "extensive" work needed to improve the system. "In our view, it will take several years of consistent focus by DHS leadership, likely combined with increased staffing and legislative and community support, to lock in improvements," auditors wrote.
In a Wednesday press release, DHS Director Fariborz Pakseresht projected optimism. "We are in the early stages of reforming a child safety system that's been struggling to care for Oregon's vulnerable children and families for years," Pakseresht said. "The report confirms for us that we're on the right path, but substantial work remains ahead."
But in the 18 months since the initial report was published, Brown has clearly felt the need to intervene. Brown's tenure has been punctuated by problems in the child welfare system since she took office in 2015.
Issues in foster care seem to come to a head every few months — whether it has been the state's practice of shipping kids to out-of-state facilities, the state's handling of problematic providers, or housing foster children in hotels and DHS offices because there are so few foster homes available.
Nearly two months ago, Brown announced she was creating her own oversight board for child welfare, including high-profile state executives and experts in various fields, to turn the system around after reports of children sent out of state to residential facilities with little oversight. Since then, the board has met three times — behind closed doors.
To address public concerns about access to its information, the governor's new board established a new public records process and has been directing the consulting team from firm Alvarez and Marsal, brought on to spearhead changes at the agency, according to the governor's office. "The governor is pleased with progress of the board and the crisis management team," spokeswoman Lisa Morawski said in a June 4 email to the Oregon Capital Bureau.
Less than a month before state lawmakers must pass a budget, management at the state's Department of Human Services haven't even clearly told the legislators how many workers it needs to make things better for the thousands of kids in its care, auditors said. And it's far from clear at this point that legislators will set aside money for more workers.
Meanwhile, there still aren't enough foster homes or other safe places for high-needs kids and youth. The total number of foster homes hasn't changed since auditors released their report last year.
The agency isn't collecting what auditors say is "critical" information on staffing and placements. And a new statewide hotline for reporting child abuse — which was supposed to centralize the process — has had significant problems getting started.
In their earlier report in January 2018, auditors said that shortages of foster parents, caseworkers and safe placements posed a threat to kids' well-being and that the way the agency had been managed was deeply problematic. Managers allowed a "work culture of blame and distrust" to foment. The agency's leaders didn't plan enough for expensive initiatives, target the cause of problems, or push long-term changes.
During the past year and a half, the child welfare program's management has seen significant turnover. New managers have boosted training and help for workers, and "is making stronger efforts to identify and address the concerns" of workers in the field, according to the new audit.
'Pleased with progress'
The 2018 audit, sought by the late Secretary of State Dennis Richardson — himself a foster parent — was hardly the first report on conditions in the long-troubled foster care system. Auditors have looked at overarching bureaucratic problems, such as flagging morale over resources and compensation at the Department of Human Services, which is also home to state services for elderly people, people with disabilities and the poor, in 2016, and two years before that, at a technical system for processing payments.
In 2012, in a report on barriers to reunifying foster kids with their biological parents, auditors raised red flags about caseworkers' high workloads.
In turn, they pointed to issues that already been brought up four years before that, in a study of caseworkers' loads. That workload report found that the state had about 24 to 37 percent fewer caseworkers than it needed for high-quality work. And more than a decade later, it appears that the agency still doesn't have enough workers to care for children in its custody.
Citing state budget officials, auditors said Wednesday, June 5, that the agency still has "significant vacancies and high turnover" so even if the legislature provided money to add workers, there's a significant risk they could remain empty. The agency has cut down on overtime by lowering the amount of time that foster kids spend in hotels — which prompted a public outcry several years ago — but the agency hasn't clearly told the legislature what it lacks, isn't keeping track of turnover or worker use of family leave, and doesn't have staff to send multiple people out to calls that could be dangerous, the audit said.
Previous efforts to implement changes to the system have fallen short. Three years ago, in the wake of a scandal at a Portland foster care provider, lawmakers created a special child foster care advisory commission designed to turn the many reports on how to improve the system into policies.
But as previous reporting by the Oregon Capital Bureau has shown, the commission struggled to get off the ground and has not had any discernible effect on the state's foster kids.
Gov. Kate Brown is under pressure to make changes. She took office in February 2015, and her tenure has been punctuated by problems in the child welfare system. They seem to come to a head every few months — whether it has been the state's practice of shipping kids to out-of-state facilities, the state's handling of problematic providers, or housing foster children in hotels and DHS offices because there are so few foster homes available.
In mid-April, Brown established her own oversight board for child welfare, including high-profile state executives and experts in various fields, to try to turn the system around. Since then, the board has met three times.
In an effort to address public concerns about access to its information, the board approved a new public records process and has been directing a crisis management team brought on to spearhead changes at the agency, according to the governor's office.
"The governor is pleased with progress of the board and the crisis management team," spokeswoman Lisa Morawski said in an email to the Oregon Capital Bureau Tuesday.
The budget for the state's Department of Human Services has not been finalized, so it's not clear how much money legislators will approve for the state's largest agency. Last year, Brown proposed a $56 million increase in funding for the child welfare program for the next two years, auditors said in their Wednesday report.
Auditors said Wednesday that to serve kids better, the agency should get more workers and support. "Additional staff and program support, while costly, would likely reduce staff workloads and improve child safety and family stability," auditors wrote.
The governor's office is urging lawmakers to boost funding for the child welfare system through two bills: Senate Bill 1 and Senate Bill 221. The governor's office said in an email that those proposals would "improve services" for kids with special needs and provide the agency more money for staff "to help lower caseloads and improve staff culture and child safety."
Other factors have complicated reforms over the years. While agency leaders have struggled to implement policies, the legislature and federal government passed new laws and regulations in a seeming constant stream.
Some advocates, meanwhile, stress the state should be looking at the underlying causes that lead children to enter foster care in the first place, such as addiction, poverty and lack of access to mental and behavioral health services.
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