State foster care consultants lay foundation for big changes
By Christmas, crisis consultants hired to improve Oregon's struggling foster care system are expected to wrap up their $1 million contract.
In April, Gov. Kate Brown asked a crew of consultants from the firm Alvarez and Marsal — perhaps best known for taking over Lehman Brothers after the Wall Street firm filed for bankruptcy — to look under the hood at the Oregon Department of Human Services. They were tasked with kick-starting solutions to deep-seated problems at the agency's Child Welfare division. About 7,000 Oregon kids are in foster care. During the past several years, a bright spotlight has been on the agency for treatment of children in its care.
DHS has been the subject of multiple internal and external reviews that have laid out what the agency needed to change to keep kids safe. Brown was adamant that she didn't want more recommendations. Instead, she wanted action on recommendations already made, some repeatedly over recent years.
For example, multiple audits and reviews pointed to the agency's workload problem. Experts have long said that DHS caseworkers who have front line duty for the well being of foster kids have too many to look after and were getting overwhelmed and burned out. About a third of workers had less than a year and a half of experience, according to a 2018 state audit.
In a Nov. 20 meeting with lawmakers in her office at the Capitol, Brown said the consultants had made "really steady progress." She pointed to their work on the agency's Critical Incident Review teams, which investigate deaths of kids who have interacted with the child welfare system, and to their efforts to rapidly hire more caseworkers and reduce the number of Oregon children shuttled out of state for care.
Brown also said the agency is improving its handling of requests for public records and in communicating with reporters and the public. Brown appeared especially happy with efforts to hire more workers. Audits and reports for years have highlighted the damaging impact of high workloads on kids in the child welfare system.
The agency received thousands of applications to fill new jobs, Brown said. "All I know is it was extraordinary. I've never seen anything like it," she said. "We have now made . . . conditional offers to over 345 applicants and they're in the process of getting trained. So I'm really, really pleased."
Wanda Seiler of Alvarez and Marsal told legislators that the firm did a lot of work smoothing out the internal workings of the agency that wouldn't be immediately apparent. One example: Making it easier for kids in foster care to get medical care. Seiler reviewed a host of changes consultants have already made, like creating new training for certain jobs and streamlining the agency's hiring process.
State Rep. Alissa Keny-Guyer, D-Portland, expressed concerns that high caseloads could continue to cause workers to leave. "I just want to again, reiterate that as great as the … surge is, and the extra training and hiring for other positions to support that, we would still risk hemorrhaging if the caseload is so great," she said.
There was also some discussion about a yearlong project to centralize the state's abuse reporting hotline. That effort has encountered long wait times for callers and inexperienced staff.
The change also seems to have driven up the number of assessments of abuse reports. After the new central hotline was put into place, assessments by Child Protective Services are up by about 40 percent, according to Oregon DHS.
The consultants have also worked on giving parents more help so children could stay in their homes. "The big story here really is the need for services to support families to stay together," Seiler said.
Much of that progress will take time, Seiler said.
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