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Oregon Secretary of State Audit of Foster Care System Reveals Systemic Problems

High Angle View Of Children Shadow On Street

On January 31, Oregon Secretary of State Dennis Richardson released a long-awaited audit report of the foster care system and Department of Human Services (DHS). Richardson called a press conference to discuss the results with reporters. The report blasted DHS management for failing to correct chronic and systemic shortcomings that have persisted for years.

During the press conference, Richardson introduced Jamie Ralls, the chief auditor in charge of the report. Ralls detailed the persistent problems that plague the agency, saying:

Since 2011, the number of available foster homes has declined 15%, and the total number of foster homes with parents who are not related to the children has declined by almost half.

The agency has also increasingly resorted to housing children in hotels, often leaving inexperienced caseworkers, who work full time schedules during the day, to supervise them during the night. From Sept 2016 to July 2017, DHS has placed 189 children in hotels, at least 284 times. The average length of stay was seven days. Several of these instances involved the same child being placed in a hotel multiple times. One child was placed in a hotel nine separate times in a 14-month period. DHS did not formally track the hotelling of children until September 2016, only after a federal lawsuit was filed. We found the data that they were tracking was not always complete, or consistent, or reliable. We were unable to conclude on behavioral needs of children who stayed in hotels, as over 60% of them did not have a record of a behavioral assessment. We also found the agency is not tracking costs. We estimated the cost from September 2016 to July 2017 to be over $2.5 million.

Child welfare offices are chronically understaffed. They are currently short approximately 770 caseworkers, supervisors, program managers, and support staff who are all needed to manage caseloads. Caseworkers are overworked. They're struggling, and many are leaving the department in high numbers. Caseworkers are not able to have meaningful visits with children under their supervision even once a month - the bare minimum. Caseworkers are overwhelmed with high caseloads which has led to rampant overtime use. High turnover and frequent use of medical leave for stress and burnout. In one office we visited eight caseworkers in a single unit were out that month on medical leave. This means that their caseloads need to be transferred to the remaining staff, who already have full caseloads.

Ralls went on to further detail the problem of understaffing, saying that fully one-third of DHS caseworkers were in their first eighteen months on the job, due to extreme rates of staff turnover. The report attributes this turnover to burnout and stress. Because of the high turnover rate, DHS spends significant sums on training new employees — to the tune of $28 million annually.

Said Ralls,

In light of these severe issues, we found management's response to these problems has been slow, indecisive, and inadequate. DHS and child welfare managers have not strategically addressed severe and chronic caseworker understaffing. They have failed to provide the legislature with accurate staffing data for funding and decision making, they have not strategically addressed the recruitment and retention of high quality foster parents, and they have not developed a statewide recruitment strategy.

For over a decade, management's response to the crisis and scrutiny has been to reorganize the system, not effectively plan to fix it. Several substantial reform efforts have been poorly planned and executed, then abandoned.

This leadership deficit has had significant fiscal effects, according to the report. Ralls said that since 2006 this lack of strategic management has helped to fuel an increase in lawsuits and payouts — totaling at least $39 million in that time.

That's just the lawsuits. That doesn't include the failed computer system. In an all-too-familiar tale, a state agency in Oregon has blown tens of millions of taxpayer dollars on a computer system that has never worked, and likely will never work.

According to the audit, DHS worked with a vendor to create a case management system called OR-Kids. They spent $74 million on this system — double the budget, according to Richardson. The vendor and the state mutually agreed to part ways after over 1,000 critical fixes were identified — fixes that remain uncorrected.

Of course, this computer system failure calls to mind the Cover Oregon Medicaid exchange debacle that wasted $305 million on a failed website. Oregon has also suffered an expensive and embarrassing failure in the DMV system approved in the 1990s — $56 million wasted that time. (Check out this article from the Bend Bulletin that lists all IT project failures for the state. It's kind of impressive.)

Richardson, who himself adopted a girl out of the foster system when she was 10 years old, was asked why the number of available foster homes has fallen so precipitously. He said:

Not everyone can be foster parents, but a whole lot of people could, if they knew of the need, and that there was a way to get into the system and get certified that wasn't going to be so burdensome that it just wasn't worth it. I talked to a young family a few months ago about this very thing. They said, we tried, and then we saw what we had to do to qualify — I mean, we are not criminals — and we just said, you know what, it's not worth it.

Similar problems plague the hiring process for caseworkers, according to Richardson:

There are people who are prepared to be caseworkers, if the training is there, if the amount of money to pay them is there, if they felt comfortable that this is a position where they can make a difference. We have young people coming out of college with a degree in social work that want to dedicate their lives to making a difference in society. They get hired, they become a caseworker, they're supposed to have 18 months of training, they get much less than that. They're finding themselves in a position of having to make a decision — do I pull this child and disrupt this family in a horrible way, or do I leave this child in the position with the family and risk that there's going to be a problem with violence? Either way, it's an untenable situation that they're in. They often don't have children of their own. They don't have a lot of life experiences. They're being forced to make decisions they're not prepared to make. That's part of the stress that they feel.

Both problems, Richardson asserted, result from a failure of management to properly plan and respond to crises.

The audit comes amid years of growing scandals and revelations of severe mistreatment of children in Oregon's foster care system.

Richardson summed up the press conference succinctly in his response to a question as to why the resources have not been allocated by the legislature to correct many of these problems:

My personal opinion is that there is not a strong enough lobby for the children.

The full report, including the 24 recommendations for improvement in DHS, can be read here.

You can follow Jeff Reynolds on Twitter at @ChargerJeff.