State turns to consultants to clean up foster care mess
SALEM — Outside consultants are pushing dramatic, immediate changes to fix Oregon's foster care system.
The Department of Human Services has been unable to resolve problems in the long-troubled system charged with lifting thousands of Oregon kids out of abuse and neglect.
Nearly two months ago, Gov. Kate Brown brought on crisis management consultants to make quick changes. She also created a board to oversee their work.
Documents released to the Oregon Capital Bureau through a public records request show the crisis consultants are working to increase places for foster kids to stay — especially kids who need mental health and behavioral health care, and to hire more caseworkers.
Dual shortages of workers and foster homes are long-running deficiencies that state auditors said last year put foster kids' safety at risk. The consultants intend to step up recruitment of foster parents across the state, recruit behavioral health providers and open more options for kids who need that care, find contractors to provide services for kids who need residential psychiatric care, and oversee plans to bring kids who are currently housed outside Oregon back home.
The consultants also want to reboot the agency's handling of public records and data. They're expected to evaluate the agency's information technology systems as well.
On any given day, about 7,600 Oregon kids are in foster care. The system has chronic, deep-seated problems. But specific issues bubble to the surface seemingly every few months.
During the legislative session, reporters and lawmakers have shed light on how Oregon foster children have been sent to distant residential facilities with very little oversight. It was after problems, including violence and abuse, became known and a lawsuit was filed in federal court over the practice that Brown convened an oversight board, comprised of high-level state executives and other experts, to institute reforms.
The state is paying the consulting firm Alvarez and Marsal about $1 million for the crisis consulting. A copy of the contract lays out the firm's weekly work through late July. By next week, the consultants are expected to identify and fix obstacles to hiring more workers and find fixes for those obstacles where they can.
The agency, which also suffers from high turnover, has had trouble in the past with filling vacant positions. The consultants are recommending "surge" hiring to quickly close the gap. Auditors said last year that the agency is short about 700 workers.
Consultants are also recommending the state put a private recruiter to work to find more foster parents. The state has so far relied on a fragmented approach to finding new parents and new homes.
Records show that the team is regularly briefing the governor and oversight board.
Brown, in explaining her executive order to reporters in April, divided the work into three pieces: out-of-state placements, finding safe and appropriate places for kids with high needs to stay, and resolving the agency's issues with communications and public records.
When Brown announced she was creating the oversight group in April, she said she wanted the relatively new leaders at DHS — a massive agency that also oversees social programs for the poor, elderly and people with disabilities — to have a chance to get their sea legs.
DHS Director Fariborz Pakseresht, an experienced state administrator, has been at the helm since September 2017, after leading the Oregon Youth Authority. The head of the Child Welfare program, Marilyn Jones, started her post a month later.
"I wanted to give both Marilyn and Fariborz an opportunity to get their feet on the ground and be implementing the changes they saw fit," Brown said at the time. "What is really clear to me at this point in time is that Marilyn needs more support around her. And there's frankly just a lot more work to be done in the short term."
Brown said she hoped her intervention could "speed up" the timeline of reforms at the department by "breaking some barriers around hiring practices and regulations."
"While there is certainly some progress being made, there is not enough progress, in my mind," Brown said.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.