Citizens must demand improvement in foster care

    Last month, Oregon Secretary of State Dennis Richardson issued an audit of how well the Department of Human Services was managing foster care in Oregon. The answer was, not well at all. The audit, based on careful review of records of what DHS has and has not done, interviews with key players and other sources of reliable information reached three key conclusions:

    • DHS does not have enough foster placements to meet the needs of at-risk children, because of its failures to adequately and effectively recruit foster parents and to retain and support the foster parents it does have.

    • DHS lacks sufficient staff to perform such essential functions as screening to determine when children need to be brought within the foster care system and managing the caseloads of children within the system. Existing staff face overwhelming case loads, leading to high turnover, leading to a large proportion of staff being inexperienced and without needed training and guidance, in a loop of reinforcing problems.

    • Underlying these more specific problems are chronic and systemic management shortcomings, including a culture of blame, inadequate planning, failure to address the root causes of systemic problems.

    As a result of all these failures the agency places the children it serves at unnecessary high risk.

    The report notes a history of turmoil, in part in response to public exposure of one of the Agency’s most visible failures, when a private entity, Give Us This Day, providing residential and therapeutic care under contract to DHS was shown to have misspent close to $2 million, to place children in substandard facilities and to mistreat foster children in its care. The problem was not just with the contract provider: DHS had received information warning of this agency’s inadequacies over and over for almost ten years, but did not respond forcefully until the story broke in the press.

    As a consequence there has recently been turmoil and turnover at the top: a new director of DHS was appointed in mid-2017, he in turn appointed a new Child Welfare director on October 2017.

    My reaction to the audit report is some blend of sadness, outrage and amazement that any agency — public or private — could do such a poor job in fulfilling one of its most essential functions. I suspect that part of the answer is the lack of a political powerful constituency for what the agency does. Large number of Oregonians, many of whom are articulate and sophisticated and capable of expressing and arousing concern can help ensure that agencies that manage our natural resources or our higher education system or welfare programs directed toward senior citizens do at least a reasonable job of carrying out their mission.

    But the people most directly affected by the actions of DHS’ Child Welfare programs are children — generally poor and often minority children whose own parents almost by definition have not been effective at caring for their children and are unlikely to be a constituency to hold DHS’ feet to the fire. Foster families can often see the results of DHS’ shortcomings, but they are a small group of people, almost all of whom are extremely busy trying to provide care for the children under their supervision.

    I hope and urge that others – ordinary citizens of Oregon who care about the welfare of all our children – would take up the task of watching what DHS does, supporting them when they are genuinely trying to do the right thing (as it appears the new leadership may be doing) and insisting, loudly and clearly, that they do better if they don’t improve — a lot — from where they were when this audit was done. We can also serve as watchdogs, encouraging the Oregon Legislature to exercise its oversight functions, and to provide adequate funding so that DHS can do better.

    No definable group is as unable to protect itself from harm as children in foster care; thus no other group has as great a call on us to act — and to ensure that others act — on their behalf.

    — Mary Coombs of Ashland has been interested in foster care issues since she taught law and served as a Court Appointed Special Advocate in Miami, Florida.


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