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

(Getty Images)

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 โ€” to the tune of $28 million annually.