As Oregon legislators plan to create new state programs, they have overlooked something that has not received adequate attention for years: the state’s foster care system. It is such a mess that it endangers the children it’s supposed to help.
An audit of the Department of Human Services’ foster care system released Wednesday should enrage Oregonians.
Among other things, the DHS does not follow through adequately on allegations of child abuse. The agency has two investigative bodies that look into charges of abuse of children and adults. It sounds reasonable, but it’s not the norm, and as a result of the setup, no one investigated charges of abuse of one child by another in the same home for years. Each group of investigators thought the other was handling it. Still, DHS clings to the split system.
The agency is split in other ways, as well. It has 16 districts, many without adequate leadership. While district heads report to Salem, they operate independently, some with little oversight.
According to the audit, the system’s problems are nothing new. Caseloads are too high, so much so that employee turnover is a staggering 25 percent per year. The number of foster care providers willing to take nonrelatives has declined by more than half, although the number of relatives who step up has increased. That’s good for some kids, but not all have a family to go to. The agency has no statewide plan to resolve the problem.
There is a variety of causes for individual problems, but in the end, the report points to what’s become a more or less toxic work environment, an inability to put a new system in place and support it long enough to make it work, a lack of good data and woeful understaffing. Nor has DHS asked for better. Last year, for example, it asked lawmakers to fund about 300 new employees, although it needed about 770, the audit says.
Oregonians should be outraged that their government is failing children in this way. Legislators must put aside their bickering and their pie-in-the-sky lawmaking, create a plan and find the money to make certain Oregon’s most endangered children are protected in the way they should be.