Secretary of State Dennis Richardson released an audit on the Department of Human Services (DHS) and Child Welfare management. The audit found that DHS has been slow and indecisive in responding to a growing foster care crisis, which has increased risks to the children the system was created to serve.
“The thousands of children in Oregon’s foster care system are among the most vulnerable populations in the state,” said Secretary of State Dennis Richardson. “These children need secure and appropriate placements with well-supported foster families.”
The auditors found a declining number of foster homes, overwhelming staff caseloads, and foster children who are spending days or weeks in hotels instead of in more appropriate placements. They also found a work culture of blame and distrust that undermines agency efforts to protect the safety and wellbeing of foster children.
There are over 11,000 children and teenagers in Oregon’s foster care system. These children are often the victims of child abuse and neglect, and many have acute mental and physical health needs that require targeted and timely service delivery.
Among the audit’s key findings:
Agency culture is dysfunctional and contributes to high staff and executive turnover.
There is a lack of accountability and transparency in the Child Welfare program.
Management does not plan adequately for costly initiatives and needs to better use data to make informed decisions and promote lasting program improvements. Several large initiatives have floundered in recent years, setting the agency back in its ability to effectively manage child welfare mandates and foster care services.
OR-Kids, an electronic case management data system, is outdated, time-consuming, and difficult for caseworkers to navigate. It still has over 1,000 outstanding fixes waiting to be addressed, some of which date back several years. The development of the OR-Kids system cost the agency $74 million – 100% more than originally projected—and appears to be fatally flawed.
Available foster homes have declined by 15% since 2011, and the number of experienced foster homes that serve the general population of foster children has declined by 55%. Foster parents struggle with limited guidance and support and are leaving the system faster than they can be recruited. Oregon’s foster children have diverse needs and backgrounds, and DHS needs a statewide recruitment and retention program that draws and retains diverse foster parents.
The agency lacks crucial data on foster home capacity which is needed to support recruitment efforts.
Child Welfare field offices are severely and chronically understaffed and administrative burdens continue to grow. Statewide, Child Welfare field staffing is short approximately 770 staff—the current number of caseworkers is 35% below the level needed to manage current caseloads.
Overwhelming caseloads are leading to rampant overtime use, high caseworker turnover, and staff frequently using medical leave for stress.
Caseloads are not reliably tracked centrally or at the district level, and the central office does not monitor the impact of turnover and leave time on caseload burdens and staffing allocations.
Auditors researched promising practices in other states and local governments; visited several district and field offices; interviewed well over 200 DHS central office and field staff, community partners, foster parents, and foster youth; and collected and reviewed data on foster children, families, and staff resources.
Auditors determined that in order for DHS to begin reversing the foster care crisis, it must first proactively address deficiencies in its management and organizational culture. Other key recommendations include substantially increasing caseworker positions and other field staff resources, creating a robust foster parent recruitment and retention plan, and overhauling or replacing the OR-Kids case management system.
“The problems facing Oregon foster care are serious and demand thoughtful and immediate attention,” said Secretary Richardson. “Today, Oregon cannot ensure that foster children are receiving adequate care and services. State leaders are truly alarmed by this deplorable situation. The time for hand-wringing and finger-pointing is past. The time for action is now. The new leadership team at DHS is ready and willing to support their caseworkers with the time and resources they need to do their jobs. Fariborz Pakseresht, Marylin Jones, and the local DHS leadership are committed to restoring child safety and wellbeing as the primary mission of the foster care system. We must provide our foster care leaders and caseworkers with the funding and tools they need to serve this most vulnerable population entrusted to their care."
Oregon Department of Human Services Responds
The leadership of the Oregon Department of Human Services (DHS) has issued the following statements in response to today's release of an audit of Oregon's child welfare system:
"We appreciate the audit's recommendations and the attention it helps bring to such important issues. Under Governor Brown's leadership, DHS is already moving forward in many of these areas to improve outcomes for Oregon's children, and we have made significant progress in the last six to nine months since the audit research took place."
"The report highlights the impact of chronic understaffing, one of our agency's greatest challenges, which has led to high turnover and other problems in the agency. It also emphasizes the need to improve management practices and change our agency culture to one of empowerment to do our best for our children and our communities.
"When I started in my role as DHS director in September, the Governor made it clear to me that she expects every child in foster care to be safe. As part of that, she has directed us to focus on recruiting and retaining foster parents and case workers, and to create a better culture of support for them. She expects results and outcomes and we will be reporting to her on those monthly.
"We are tackling the root cause of these issues, not just the symptoms. Data is a key part of our efforts, both leveraging existing data to highlight areas of improvement, and arming our caseworkers with the ability to interpret it. We are improving our systems and the management of those systems.
As we respond to issues articulated in the audit, we are also building the foundation to deliver sustained outcomes and results according to our vision of safety, independence and health for all Oregonians."
--Fariborz Pakseresht, DHS director
"Work has already begun that addresses the audit recommendations. As we move forward and continue our efforts to better partner with communities and to better support existing foster families and staff in the field, we will report to the Governor, the Legislature and the public with timelines and expectations for our performance.
"Our staff is dedicated and eager to help find solutions to the problems that affect our ability to serve children and families, and we are taking every available action to increase our support for our staff who work so hard to make sure Oregon's children are safe. Our caseworkers and supervisors are committed and resilient and are helping children stay safe and reunite with their families when possible; or to be adopted when that is the best option. In 2017, a total of 2,134 kids left foster care to be reunited with their parents and 673 were adopted. We should celebrate our successes even as we acknowledge our problems."
--Marilyn Jones, Child Welfare director
* To view the entire DHS response to the audit, and to learn how you can help Oregon's foster children and youth, please visit: http://www.oregon.gov/DHS/CHILDREN/Pages/cw-audit.aspx
Source: Secretary of State and Department of Human Services