Legislature must act now on foster care

Oregon Secretary of State Dennis Richardson has done his job by compiling an audit of the state's ailing foster care system.

The question now is whether the Legislature will do its job.

The audit describes a system that fails to protect some of Oregon's most vulnerable children. The Department of Human Services (DHS) doesn't have enough caseworkers, auditors concluded. The resulting workload has contributed to an employee turnover rate of 23 percent in 2016. Incredibly, DHS officials last year asked the Legislature for money to hire fewer than half (300) of the 770 employees that auditors say are needed.

The 59-page audit found that many of the agency's problems have been festering for years, but that DHS officials' response "has been slow, indecisive and inadequate."

The foster care system's institutional troubles can't be fixed quickly. That will require consistent, long-term efforts by Fariborz Pakseresht, who took over as DHS director in September.

But the Legislature, which convened last Monday in Salem for a five-week session, can do something before it adjourns.

Rep. Knute Buehler, the Bend Republican who is running for governor, has called for lawmakers to allocate $50 million to the foster care system, possibly by boosting the state's cigarette tax.

Yet Sen. Sara Gelser, a Democrat from Corvallis, argued that giving DHS more money now wouldn't help because the state doesn't have a plan to use the money efficiently.

We disagree.

DHS doesn't need a plan to hire caseworkers, a move that would have a nearly immediate benefit on current employees and their clients.

Gelser is right in saying that the foster care system's problems are "decades in the making." But that doesn't excuse the Legislature from acting now to start reversing the troubling trend.

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