There are always going to be problems in a foster care system. The challenges foster children have are rarely easily solved.
But Oregonians should not have a problem finding out what their government is doing about it. And it can be very difficult to get answers from the Oregon Department of Human Services. Despite the strength of Oregon’s public records law, the law is largely toothless.
Secretary of State Dennis Richardson released a scathing audit in January of the state’s foster care system. The subtitle gives a great summary: “Chronic management failures and high caseloads jeopardize the safety of some of the state’s most vulnerable children.”
So what was DHS going to do about it? It pledged to work on all 24 of the audit’s recommendations — adopting data-driven decision making, promoting transparency about what it is doing, overhauling case management, communicating better with the Legislature about understaffing, developing a strategy to stop sticking foster children in hotels and many, many more. That’s great.
DHS released reports to the governor in March, April and May showing progress on some of these issues. Its director also recently testified before a legislative committee. But it has not made public the progress in many areas.
We first asked for detailed information in April with a phone call to the DHS press office. We were told by spokeswoman Christine Stone in mid-April that she would get right on it. April ended and we got nothing. We sent an email on May 1 with a detailed list of questions. “I am working on your answers,” she replied that same day. On May 3, she wrote: “I have one more review I am waiting on. I have asked for a quick review.”
On May 11, we asked that she give us what she has been able to gather so far. On May 17, she replied that the DHS director would be testifying before the Legislature on matters related to our request. He did. But it was not the detailed response we had asked for. On May 21 we made a public records request for emails related to our request for information, hoping that would round up some of the relevant documents and maybe explain why we got nothing.
It’s been more than 15 business days since we made that request. According to Oregon public records law, within 15 business days we should have either received the documents, DHS should have provided us with “a written statement that the public body is still processing the request and a reasonable estimated date by which the public body expects to complete its response based on the information currently available.” Or DHS could have given us a good excuse. We didn’t get any of that. What penalty does DHS face? None.
There’s more interesting behavior about DHS and public disclosure. The Legislature mandated the formation of a public body now called the Child Welfare Advisory Committee. It’s to advise the agency on its policies, programs and practices. It’s mandated to meet at least every three months. We were curious about it because in the wake of the state audit, we thought it might be discussing improving foster care. DHS did not publicly post any information or minutes about any 2018 meetings until after we asked why there was nothing there.
The primary goal of the state’s foster care system is taking care of endangered children — not informing the public. But DHS should take seriously the public’s right to know how and what it is doing.