The Oregon Department of Human Services has been in the news for all the wrong reasons for at least a couple of years.
The state’s foster care system and its child protective services are a mess, a state of affairs that was highlighted in a Secretary of State’s audit in early January. So far, it appears, attempts to correct problems haven’t done the job. Lawmakers made one such attempt in 2017, when they passed Senate Bill 819, a measure that requires an investigation into every death of a child who’d had contact with child protective services within the past year. The reports are to be completed quickly and sanitized a bit before being made public. Neither of those things has happened in the last 18 months, according to a report in The Oregonian. The state missed the federal standard for beginning such studies by a mile. Under the standard, reports must be completed on time in 90 percent of cases; that happened in only 11 percent of Oregon cases.
There’s more. The current DHS department head, Fariborz Pakseresht, has not only failed to issue the required reports on deaths in a timely manner his staff argues the 2017 change in the law actually allows the agency to take as much time as it wishes even to begin looking into children’s deaths. Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, a sponsor of the bill, argues that’s simply not true. The Department of Human Services is supposed to protect the state’s most vulnerable residents, children whose parents are unable to do so themselves.
When it fails, lawsuits almost always follow, and that may account for some of the current secrecy and delay. That’s to be expected. But when the guardians do not, for whatever reason, guard Oregon’s children adequately, there’s no one left to take over the job. Careful investigation and reporting are necessary to learn why and how failures occur, and stonewalling, as DHS leadership seems to have done, is not an option.